WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a New York law that required state residents to have "proper cause" to carry a handgun, a decision that could make it far easier for millions of Americans to arm themselves in public as the nation is reeling from a string of mass shootings.
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion for a 6-3 majority, holding that the New York law violated the Constitution and signaling that other gun regulations disconnected from what he called the nation's "historical tradition of firearm regulation" would face similar scrutiny in federal court.
Thomas' opinion had the potential to upend the legal landscape around Second Amendment rights as Americans remain divided over access to guns. Congress is racing to pass a sweeping package of restrictions in response to mass shootings, including one at a Texas elementary school last month.
"We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need," Thomas wrote of the New York law. "It is not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to public carry for self-defense."
The case was among the most closely watched this term on a docket full of culture war issues such as abortion, religious freedom and climate change. The decision drew a fiery response from Democrats, including President Joe Biden, and gun control groups who asserted that increasing access to guns will drive additional violence.
"This ruling contradicts both common sense and the Constitution, and should deeply trouble us all," Biden said in a statement.
The decision landed weeks after an 18-year-old gunman, armed with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle, fatally shot 19 children and two teachers at a school in Texas. Another 18-year-old was charged with killing 10 people May 14 at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. Four people were killed June 1 in a shooting at an Oklahoma medical facility.
Gun rights groups countered that the New York law did nothing to stop the Buffalo shooting and asserted it wouldn't have stopped other high-profile killings.
In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Samuel Alito criticized his liberal colleagues for mentioning the mass shootings in their dissent.
"Will a person bent on carrying out a mass shooting be stopped if he knows that it is illegal to carry a handgun outside the home?" Alito wrote. "Does the dissent think that a lot of people who possess guns in their homes will be stopped or deterred from shooting themselves if they cannot lawfully take them outside?"
The court issued the decision after a bipartisan group of senators this week revealed the text of a sweeping gun control package that, if passed, could end decades of partisan gridlock and inaction on the issue. That bill includes an "enhanced review process" for young gun buyers and would provide money to states that adopt "red flag" laws that allow courts to remove firearms from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.
Associate Justice Stephen Breyer started his dissent by calling attention to the 45,222 Americans who were killed by firearms in 2020 and studies that show gun violence has surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death among children and adolescents.
"Many states have tried to address some of the dangers of gun violence just described by passing laws that limit, in various ways, who may purchase, carry, or use firearms of different kinds," Breyer wrote. "The court today severely burdens states’ efforts to do so."
More than a decade ago, the high court ruled that Americans have an individual right under the Second Amendment to possess guns in their homes, settling a debate over whether the Constitution guaranteed that right only for individuals or militias. The court left unanswered whether the same right exists beyond a home's front door.
At issue was a New York law that required residents to have "proper cause" to carry a handgun – in other words, a need for self-protection greater than most people could demonstrate. Well-known figures or people who carry significant amounts of cash might need such a permit. Two upstate New York residents, joined by the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, sued when a county licensing official denied them the carry privileges they sought.
At least five Democratic-led states – including California, Maryland and New Jersey – have licensing regimes similar to New York's. Together, those states represent about a quarter of the nation's population. Forty-three other states, according to the court's count, have "shall issue" requirements, meaning that officials must issue concealed-carry licenses as long as applicants meet the state's requirements.
The court's decision was celebrated by gun rights groups, which had long argued it didn't make sense that the Second Amendment protected the right to have a gun inside one's home but not once the gun owner walked out the front door.
"Today’s ruling is a watershed win for good men and women all across America and is the result of a decades-long fight the NRA has led," said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. "The right to self-defense and to defend your family and loved ones should not end at your home."
Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights, called the decision a "massive victory for the Second Amendment."
"No law-abiding gun owner should be denied the right to carry a firearm for personal protection while in public – and thankfully the court has now affirmed it," he said.
Gun control groups said the decision would spur regulations and litigation in Democratic-led states. Those states could require stringent training for people to obtain a license to carry a handgun, for instance. They could attempt to ban the carrying of guns in specific places, such as bars, sports stadiums and public transit.
"We do not need people entering our subways, our restaurants, our movie theaters with concealed weapons. We don't need more guns on our streets," New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said. "We're already dealing with a major gun violence crisis. We don't need to add more fuel to this fire."
During oral arguments in the case in November, the justices wrestled with some of those limits on the right to carry a gun in public. They peppered the plaintiffs with hypotheticals about whether New York could ban handguns on the New York City subway or in Yankee Stadium. What about on college campuses or at bars?
Thomas wrote Thursday that cities and states appear to be on solid constitutional footing by banning guns in "sensitive places," but the court declined to define exactly what that term means – beyond courthouses and "legislative assemblies."
Much was made of the court's decision last year to hear the case, in part because the justices had turned away other Second Amendment appeals for years and also because it seemed to pump the brakes on culture war issues more generally. Since then, the 6-3 conservative court has agreed to revisit abortion, affirmative action policies in college admissions and the extent to which states may consider race when they draw political boundaries, such as congressional districts.
Contributing: David Jackson, Candy Woodall and Kevin McCoy
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Second Amendment: Supreme Court strikes down New York handgun law