The Supreme Court left in doubt Monday whether gun owners have a Second-Amendment right to carry a firearm in public, declining to hear a case about concealed-carry laws that is similar to a Maryland suit that still has life in federal courts.
Without a comment or dissent, the justices turned down a gun-rights challenge to the New York law, which strictly limits who can legally carry a weapon on the streets. To obtain a concealed carry permit, New Yorkers must convince a county official that they have a "special need for protection" that goes beyond living or working in a high-crime area.
The case has parallels with a challenge to Maryland's permitting law, though both sides of the case here cautioned against reading too much into the effect of the high court's decision Monday.
A panel of judges at The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the state law last month, reversing a lower court decision. Maryland requires applicants to show "good and substantial reason" that they need a concealed-carry license.
Observers in Maryland said Monday that the high court may eventually take on a Second Amendment case, but the rejection of the New York case indicates the justices may not be prepared to do so yet.
"This has been a big term for the court," said Mark Graber, an associate dean at the University of Maryland law school. Between affirmative action, same-sex marriage and the Voting Right Act, the justices had had a busy term and "might want to hang low for a little while," he said.
Alan Gura, a Washington attorney involved in the Maryland case brought by Baltimore County resident Raymond Woollard, said he is waiting to hear back on whether the full Fourth Circuit court will consider the case before attempting to have it heard by the Supreme Court.
"Nothing has changed about the fact that this is an extremely important issue on which the lower courts are divided, and we will continue to do whatever we can to preserve our clients' fundamental rights," Gura said.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said he believes the high court's interpretation of the Second Amendment will "continue to evolve over time," but Monday's action "suggests they're taking their time in considering any further expansion."
"The fact that they declined to take it suggests there's not an immediate appetite to expand the Second Amendment outside of the home," Gansler said.
Gura has said Maryland unnecessarily restricts the right to carry firearms, and a federal district judge agreed last March, striking down as unconstitutional the requirement that a permit seeker have a good and substantial reason.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled in late March that the state's requirements were "reasonably adapted" to its "significant interests in protecting public safety and preventing crime."
Gansler said that New York's laws are much stricter than those in Maryland, and that the New York case is more ripe for consideration by the Supreme Court. But he agreed with Gura that it does not preclude the case from being heard.
Several gun owners in New York who were denied a "concealed carry" permit sued, arguing they had a Second Amendment right to carry a gun for self-defense.
Rather than hear their appeal, the high court let stand a ruling by a federal appeals court that held states have broad authority to regulate guns in public.
The court's refusal to hear an appeal does not set a legal precedent, and the justices do not explain their reasons for turning away a case.
For now, however, the reach of the Second Amendment right "to keep and bear arms" remains uncertain.
In a pair of decisions in 2008 and 2010, the Supreme Court struck down ordinances in Washington and Chicago because they prohibited all private possession of handguns, including keeping a gun at home for self-defense. The justices did not address whether this right to self-defense includes a right to be armed in public.
Most states allow law-abiding gun owners to obtain a "concealed carry" permit.
However, at least five states besides New York and Maryland — including California and Illinois — have laws on the books that make it difficult or nearly impossible for gun owners to obtain a permit that allows them to be armed in public.
Those laws are under challenge in the lower courts.