The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a New York State law restricting the ability of individuals to carry concealed firearms outside of their homes is unconstitutional, an opinion that will trigger the overthrow of several similar state laws and which also plants the seeds for challenges to an array of other laws regulating firearms across the country.
In its ruling in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, the court held that New York's requirement that an applicant for a permit to carry a handgun in public show "proper cause" violates individuals' right to bear arms under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The court found that by imposing a subjective test that a law-abiding citizen must pass in order to exercise the right to bear arms, New York also violated the 14th Amendment, which prevents states from passing laws restricting Americans' ability to exercise their constitutional rights.
"We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need," wrote Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, in an opinion joined by the five other conservative justices on the court.
The court's three liberal justices all dissented, with Associate Justice Stephen Breyer arguing the majority had ignored New York's "compelling interest in preventing gun violence."
The ruling, a major victory for gun rights organizations, comes less than a month after two highly publicized mass shootings — in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas — galvanized congressional support for a new law aimed at reducing gun violence. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, expected to pass the Senate this week, would make a number of changes to current law, including expanding background checks for gun buyers under 21 years of age.
The killers in Buffalo and Uvalde were both 18 years old and had purchased their weapons legally.
On Thursday, just hours after the Supreme Court ruled on the New York case, 15 Republicans joined all 50 Democrats in the Senate to overcome a filibuster of the bill, setting it up for a final vote.
Advocacy groups react
Gun rights organizations cheered the Supreme Court ruling on Thursday, including the National Rifle Association (NRA), whose Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said in a statement, "This decision unequivocally validates the position of the NRA and should put lawmakers on notice: no law should be passed that impinges this individual freedom."
The reaction from gun control advocates was angry.
"Today's ruling is out of step with the bipartisan majority in Congress that is on the verge of passing significant gun safety legislation, and out of touch with the overwhelming majority of Americans who support gun safety measures," John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement. "Let's be clear: the Supreme Court got this decision wrong, choosing to put our communities in even greater danger with gun violence on the rise across the country."
Response in Washington
The reaction to the court's ruling broke down largely along partisan lines in Washington, with Democrats decrying the court's stance and Republicans supporting it.
In a statement issued by the White House, President Biden said, "This ruling contradicts both common sense and the Constitution, and should deeply trouble us all. In the wake of the horrific attacks in Buffalo and Uvalde, as well as the daily acts of gun violence that do not make national headlines, we must do more as a society — not less — to protect our fellow Americans."
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said, "It is unfathomable that, while families in Uvalde, Buffalo and countless other communities mourn their loved ones stolen by gun violence, a supermajority of the Supreme Court has chosen to endanger more American lives. Today's decision by a radical, Republican-controlled Court extends what was intended to be a limited right to self-defense at home to a new right to bring guns into our public spaces."
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy issued a statement in support of the ruling, saying, "The Constitution protects the right of law-abiding Americans to own a firearm for self-defense through the Second Amendment. While states like New York have tried to restrict that right through burdensome laws and regulations, the Supreme Court has, on multiple occasions, recognized it, and today strengthened it."
Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee, a staunch gun rights advocate, tweeted, "The Second Amendment is not a second-class constitutional right. I applaud the Supreme Court for standing with the Constitution and individual liberty in reaffirming the right of Americans to protect themselves and their families."
Licensing laws limited
The primary holding of the court's opinion is that states may not pass laws that create a system of "discretionary" permitting for concealed firearms, such as New York's, which demands applicants show evidence of a "special need" to carry a weapon and leaves it to government officials to assess the validity of that claim.
Going forward, the only constitutional gun licensing laws will be so-called "shall issue" regimes, under which a person who objectively complies with a set of requirements — including things like a criminal background check, firearms training, and a mental health evaluation — is guaranteed to receive a license.
However, gun rights activists were quick to point out that the decision is written in a way that opens the door to legal challenges to laws that extend well beyond those governing concealed carry permits.
History as guide
In the opinion, Thomas ruled that the way many courts analyze the constitutionality of gun laws, by applying a two-step process that considers both the history of the Second Amendment and the government's interests in enforcing the law, is mistaken.
"Despite the popularity of this two-step approach, it is one step too many," he wrote.
In ruling on Second Amendment cases, he wrote, courts should not weigh the government's interest in promoting public health or other aims against restrictions on gun rights.
In such cases, Thomas wrote, the courts have only one consideration: "the government must affirmatively prove that its firearms regulation is part of the historical tradition that delimits the outer bounds of the right to keep and bear arms."
In his dissent, Breyer provided lengthy descriptions of the gun violence problem in the U.S. and said that the majority was wrong to limit the government's ability to consider its interests in public safety when assessing the constitutionality of gun laws.
"Courts must be permitted to consider the State's interest in preventing gun violence, the effectiveness of the contested law in achieving that interest, the degree to which the law burdens the Second Amendment right, and, if appropriate, any less restrictive alternatives," Breyer wrote.
'You name it'
Gun rights groups see the abolishment of the "two-part test" as an opportunity to try to overturn numerous other gun restrictions.
In an interview with VOA, Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California and a member of the board of directors of Gun Owners of America, said that the ruling opens the door to challenges to assault weapons bans, high-capacity magazine bans, gun-purchase waiting periods, and more.
"You name it, it's across the board," Paredes said. "Virtually any gun control law that affects the individual rights of law-abiding citizens to acquire, use, store, possess, travel with and dispose of firearms will now be placed in jeopardy, because of the ruling from the Supreme Court. We will have the opportunity to restore the Second Amendment to its original intent."
'More firearm-related deaths'
Tim Carey, a law and policy adviser at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Violence Solutions, told VOA that he agrees that the ruling makes further challenges to existing gun laws very likely.
"There's going to be a tidal wave of incoming litigation of what have previously been long-standing and generally accepted firearms regulations," he said.
Asked what that means for the country, Carey answered on behalf of the Center for Gun Violence Solutions.
"As a public health organization, we expect, as a result of this ruling for there to be … more firearms in public and thus, more firearm-related deaths and injuries in public."