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Supreme Court debates balance between public safety, self-defense in N.Y. gun rights case

During oral arguments on Nov. 3, Justice Stephen G. Breyer described how he sees the difference between concealed carry for hunting and for self-defense. (Video: Reuters)

In a spirited discussion, the Supreme Court on Wednesday reviewed a challenge to New York State’s gun restrictions, a case with broad implications for other states that restrict the ability to carry loaded, concealed firearms in public places. It is the first major Second Amendment case before the court in more than a decade.

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Gun owners in New York must obtain a special license from local authorities to carry firearms outside the home, showing “proper cause” for needing to do so. Seven other states — California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island — have similar laws.

Several justices asked New York’s lawyer about limiting the right to carry firearms for self-defense in dangerous neighborhoods or while jogging at night, while others expressed concern about the proliferation of guns in highly populated areas.

Justices also pressed the gun owners’ lawyer about whether state lawmakers could limit the carry of firearms on college campuses, at football stadiums and in bars, with Justice Stephen G. Breyer warning of the possibility of “gun-related” chaos.

What to know:

  • It’s been 13 years since the court’s conservative majority, on a 5-4 vote, declared an individual right to gun ownership in the landmark case District of Columbia v. Heller. An even more conservative court agreed to hear this dispute, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, after multiple justices have said that the court needs to more clearly define the rights first acknowledged in 2008. Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, in particular, are seen as pivotal to the case’s outcome.
  • Gun owners Robert Nash and Brandon Koch say New York’s law is at odds with the Second Amendment by giving government officials too much discretion. The men have licenses to carry firearms for hunting and target practice, but authorities denied their requests for “unrestricted” licenses — saying they failed to show a “special need for self-protection.” Nash and Koch are joined in their suit by the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, an NRA affiliate.
  • New York officials have warned that striking down the law would jeopardize other government gun restrictions intended to safeguard subways, airports, houses of worship and bars, among other places.
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