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How the Supreme Court struck down limits on who could carry guns in public

The Supreme Court building on May 16 in Washington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The conservative majority on the Supreme Court just took down one of the nation’s oldest and most restrictive gun-control laws, potentially unraveling laws across the nation that restricted who can carry guns in public. It comes amid rising national gun violence, high-profile mass shootings and an uptick in gun sales — and as Congress advances legislation that includes its most significant gun restrictions in decades.

Here’s what’s happened.

The case: Can New York place severe restrictions on who can carry a gun in public? New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen

For 108 years, New York has said that anyone who wants to carry a gun in public must apply for a license, and he or she must be at least 21, have no criminal record, have “good moral character” and — this is the part really being challenged — a demonstrated need to carry the gun beyond average public safety fears. This is known as “proper cause.”

Two men from Upstate New York challenged the state’s law when they applied to carry a gun at all times but received allowances only for hunting or going to and from work. They sued, arguing the strict law violated their Second Amendment rights to “keep and bear arms.”

Even though the law has been on the books for so long, a newly cemented conservative Supreme Court majority knocked it down — and similar state laws are now vulnerable.

What supporters of New York’s law said about its constitutionality: Mostly liberal states — such as California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey — have similar public carry restrictions, and so do several big cities.

Supporters of these laws argue that they’re necessary in high-density areas and that the Constitution allows states to govern themselves. “A road-rage incident on the New Jersey Turnpike can quickly become violent,” wrote New Jersey state solicitor Jeremy Feigenbaum in SCOTUSblog. “A fight in Times Square can turn lethal.”

Supporters also argue that such restrictions have been around for centuries, underscoring the value that society has placed on public safety over gun rights in public places. “It’s not a thing we just came up with yesterday,” said Esther Sanchez-Gomez, a senior attorney with Giffords, an organization that supports gun-control legislation. “So it’s shocking that we are now talking about the idea that people somehow might be safer if our public spaces were filled with guns.”

The Biden administration also weighed in. The Justice Department wrote in a brief for the court that “the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms, but that right is not absolute.”

The three liberal justices on the court opposed this decision for all those reasons. Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in a dissent: “Many States have tried to address some of the dangers of gun violence … by passing laws that limit, in various ways, who may purchase, carry, or use firearms of different kinds. The Court today severely burdens States’ efforts to do so.”

What opponents of New York’s law said: Critics said requiring people to justify why they need to carry a gun in public puts a burden specifically on the Second Amendment’s right to “bear” arms. Challengers to the law told the Supreme Court that a person should not have to show a “special need” to exercise a constitutional right.

Under questioning from conservative Supreme Court justices, New York officials acknowledged that a doorman or nurse working late-night hours and commuting home in a high-crime neighborhood cannot receive permission to carry a gun for those reasons alone.

“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 M. Kavanaugh asked during oral arguments.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the deciding opinion for the majority, flatly stating that the Second Amendment allows people to carry guns outside their home for self-defense, and that they should not have to “demonstrate some special need” to the government to exercise that right.

How the Second Amendment was reinterpreted to protect individual rights

This case mixed up traditional political lines on guns. Several Republican lawyers filed a brief supporting laws like New York’s, arguing that specifically in the District of Columbia, public carry restrictions “may well have prevented a massacre” at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Meanwhile, a group of public defenders in New York City argued that the law disproportionately affects the constitutional rights of Black and Latino New Yorkers.

The public defenders also said many of their clients arrested for having unlicensed firearms in New York City said carrying them made their clients feel safer after they, or their friends and family members, experienced attacks in the city.

How this decision could affect gun laws across the nation: The Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in recently on whether the Second Amendment protects carrying guns outside the home. In 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, the court said the Second Amendment protects the right to own a gun for self-defense in the home, and in McDonald v. Chicago in 2010, it made clear that state and local gun control measures (and not just federal ones) also must respect that right.

The National Rifle Association, which helped challenge the New York law, called the decision a “watershed win.” The ruling, “opens the door to rightly change the law” in the states “that still don’t recognize the right to carry a firearm for personal protection,” Jason Ouimet, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement.

By ruling that New York’s restrictions on carrying a gun in public are unconstitutional, then “across the country, there will be lots of laws that will be invalidated right away,” said Jerold Levine, a New York City lawyer who focuses on gun cases and supports the challenge to this law.

“There’s no need to worry that murderers will be getting licenses,” he said — but people won’t have to provide a justification for their application.

Levine called this potential change the “holy grail” of gun rights: “This has been the greatest limitation for gun owners now for over 100 years.”

Gun-control supporters see this decision as drastically limiting what governments can do to restrict guns in public spaces.

“As a nation, we have a collective trauma about gun violence,” Sanchez-Gomez said. “You worry you go to a grocery store and someone might show up with a gun. You worry you are waiting to take a subway to work in the morning and someone is going to show up with a gun.”

New York City officials have expressed concerns that the Supreme Court could force the state to allow more people to carry more guns in public places. Gun violence in the five boroughs has doubled in recent years, from their historic lows in the years before the pandemic. “In a densely populated community like New York, this ruling could have a major impact on us,” said New York Mayor Eric Adams (D), a former police captain.

This report has been updated.