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Opinion The Supreme Court supercharges the Second Amendment

The Supreme Court building on on June 21. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a century-old New York gun law. Its decision is just the latest sign that the court’s conservative majority is committed to dangerous pro-gun dogma at odds with the Constitution’s words and common sense.

The New York statute required handgun owners to obtain a permit to carry concealed handguns in public, which in turn required them to show “proper cause” justifying the permit. The majority reasoned that the Constitution guarantees individuals the right to keep and bear arms to defend themselves. Because people face the general risk of violence outside the home, they concluded, the Constitution demands that people be allowed to carry handguns in public without any special justification.

The court repudiated sensible distinctions between gun owners’ homes, where it is reasonable to impose less regulation on their use of firearms, and public spaces, where states have an overwhelming interest in maintaining public order. The majority said that only a few public places — schools or government buildings — are “sensitive” enough to justify such stringent gun restrictions.

Underlying the court’s reasoning is the conservative majority’s apparent concern that the Second Amendment is considered “a second-class right.” This is puzzling, given how the justices themselves have elevated the Second Amendment above others. Their interpretation — construing the amendment to convey a personal right to individual Americans and all but ignoring its stipulation that its purpose is to preserve a “well-regulated militia” — is atextual. Rather than disfavoring the Second Amendment, the court has taken an unduly expansive view of its words.

The implications are broader than this specific case. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas declared that “to justify a firearm regulation the government must demonstrate that the regulation is consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.” The majority then discarded the historical antecedents to the New York law.

In its decision, the court rejected balancing Second Amendment rights against the government’s compelling interest in preserving peace — the sort of balancing the court performs in the context of other constitutional protections, including the First Amendment. The court’s special treatment of the Second Amendment is a break not only with good sense but also with its recent decisions. In 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, the court found that individuals’ right to keep and bear arms for self-defense is “not unlimited” and gave several indications that legitimate state concerns could be considered in assessing gun laws’ constitutionality.

If there was anything reassuring in the decision, it was that Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. emphasized in a concurrence that the court’s opinion does not prohibit states from requiring licenses to carry handguns for self-defense, so long as they use “objective licensing requirements,” such as background checks, mental health records reviews, firearms training and other possible stipulations.

Despite this nod by the justices to the need for some regulation of firearms, the nation will pay in more lives lost to gun violence as the court continues its ideological crusade to supercharge the Second Amendment.

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