Supreme Court seems open to expanding gun rights in a major Second Amendment case

Supreme Court gun case
Former congresswoman and gun violence survivor Gabby Giffords D-Ariz. speaks during a rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.
  • The Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday on a major gun-rights case.
  • The case concerns a New York law that requires people who seek a permit to carry a gun in public for self-defense to demonstrate a special reason.
  • The conservative justices, who make up the court's 6-3 majority, seemed open to scrap the rule.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments about a New York gun-permit law in a major case whose outcome could dramatically expand Second Amendment rights.

The case concerns a century-old New York law, upheld by the lower courts, that requires people who seek a license to carry a gun outside the home to demonstrate a "proper cause," or a special reason. Besides New York, at least seven other states, including California, Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Hawaii, have similar licensing rules.

It's the biggest Second Amendment case at the Supreme Court in over a decade. The justices' ruling, which will come next summer, could change firearm regulations across the country if they choose to strike down the New York law.

The National Rifle Association-backed challenge was brought to the high court by two New York men who applied for state permits to carry a concealed gun in public for self-defense and were denied. They claim the law is an infringement of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

"Carrying a firearm outside the home is a fundamental constitutional right. It is not some extraordinary action that requires an extraordinary demonstration of need," Paul Clement, the lawyer representing the gun owners, told the court during arguments on Wednesday.

"One way to think about it is we're asking that the regime work the same way for self-defense as it does for hunting. When my clients go in and ask for a license to concealed carry for hunting purposes, what they have to tell the state is they have an intent to go hunting. They don't have to say, 'I have a really good reason to go hunting,'" he said.

The Republican-appointed members of the court, who hold a 6-3 majority, appeared receptive to that argument on Wednesday.

"Why isn't it good enough to say I live in a violent area and I want to be able to defend myself?" Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked.

Hypothetically speaking, criminals can walk around New York City with their illegal guns, Justice Samuel Alito said, "but the ordinary hard-working, law-abiding people" can't be armed.

New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood supported her argument by pointing to a long history of states imposing limits on carrying guns outside the home for public safety purposes, especially in highly populated areas like New York.

"New York's law fits well within that tradition of regulating public carry. It makes a carry license available to any person not disqualified who has a non-speculative reason to carry a handgun for self-defense," she said.

Chief Justice John Roberts brought up whether differences between urban and rural areas are important in the scope of the gun law.

"If the purpose of the Second Amendment is to allow people to protect themselves, that's implicated when you're in a high-crime area. It's not implicated when you're out in the woods," he said. "How many muggings take place in the forest?"

Justice Clarence Thomas also speculated how New York's geography plays a role. "It's one thing to talk about Manhattan or NYU's campus. It's another to talk about rural upstate New York," he said.

"It seems completely intuitive that there should be different gun regimes in New York than in Wyoming," Justice Elena Kagan said. "But it's a hard thing to match with our notion of constitutional rights generally ... we would never really dream of doing that for the First Amendment."

Both conservative and liberal justices also seemed skeptical of allowing concealed carry for self-defense in all public areas, raising questions about firearms on university campuses, at stadiums, during large protests, or in Times Square on New Year's Eve.

"The difference, of course, you have a concealed weapon to go hunting. You're out with an intent to shoot, say, a deer or a rabbit, which has its problems," Justice Stephen Breyer said. "But here, when you have a self-defense just for whatever you want to carry a concealed weapon, you go shooting it around and somebody gets killed."

"Well, certainly, New York is entitled to have laws that say that you can't have weapons in sensitive places," Clement said.

The case comes as the United States reckons with an uptick in gun violence and the White House and Congress have faced public pressure from gun-control advocates to tackle the crisis. In response to a slew of mass shootings in April, President Joe Biden unveiled several actions to address the issue. Congressional Democrats have tried to advance legislation that would expand background checks, but a majority of Republicans remain opposed to such measures.

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