In a landmark victory for gun rights advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled 6–3 that “the Second and Fourteenth Amendments protect an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.”
In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment secures the right to possess a handgun inside the home for self-defense purposes. In McDonald v. Chicago (2010), that right was applied against state and local governments. Today, in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, the right was recognized to extend outside of the home.
The case centered on a New York law requiring anyone seeking a license to carry a concealed handgun in public to first satisfy a local official that he has “proper cause” to do so. According to the state, a “generalized” wish to carry a concealed weapon for self-defense purposes was not sufficient to meet the proper cause standard. “In 43 States,” observed the majority opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas, “the government issues licenses to carry based on objective criteria. But in six states, including New York, the government further conditions issuance of a license to carry on a citizen’s showing of some additional special need. Because the State of New York issues public-carry licenses only when an applicant demonstrates a special need for self-defense,” Thomas continued, “we conclude that the State’s licensing regime violates the Constitution.”
At the heart of the case was the question of whether the discretion that New York placed in the hands of local licensing officials was consistent with how constitutional rights are typically treated in the American system. New York’s licensing scheme failed that test. “We know of no other constitutional rights that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need,” Thomas wrote. “That is not how the First Amendment works when it comes to unpopular speech or the free exercise of religion. It is not how the Sixth Amendment works when it comes to a defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him. And it is not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to public carry for self-defense.”
Among the winning Second Amendment advocates today was a coalition of public defense lawyer organizations, including the Black Attorneys of Legal Aid, the Bronx Defenders, and Brooklyn Defender Services.
“Each year,” the groups told the Court in an amicus brief, “we represent hundreds of indigent people whom New York criminally charges for exercising their right to keep and bear arms. For our clients, New York’s licensing requirement renders the Second Amendment a legal fiction.” According to the public defender groups, New York’s approach has had “brutal” consequences for their clients, who have been “stopped, questioned, and frisked,” “forcibly removed” from their homes, locked up “in dirty and violent jails and prisons,” and “deprived….of their jobs, children, livelihoods, and ability to live in this country,” all “because our clients exercised a constitutional right.” They urged the Court to invalidate New York’s gun control scheme both because it violated the Second Amendment and because it disparately harmed black and Hispanic people who carried firearms for self-defense.
It has become common in recent years to speak of the Second Amendment as a partisan issue. This case is a powerful reminder that the national debate over gun rights does not divide easily or reliably along typical left-right lines.