With Congress potentially closing in on a bipartisan gun deal after last month’s run of mass shootings, the Supreme Court soon will issue a ruling that could make it easier for people in at least a half-dozen states to legally carry loaded firearms in public.
It will be the first major Second Amendment decision from the court in more than a decade. And if the justices strike down New York’s century-old restrictions on carrying concealed firearms, as appeared likely when the case was argued last fall, similar regulations in Maryland, California, New Jersey, Hawaii and Massachusetts would be vulnerable.
Elected leaders in those liberal-leaning states and gun-control advocates throughout the country are bracing for a decision that extends the constitutional right to gun ownership beyond a person’s home to gathering spots such as restaurants and shopping malls. And they fear that, depending on how broadly the court may rule, related restrictions, including state bans on high-powered semiautomatic firearms, also could be at risk.
“Recent events have underscored the importance of this case. How the court interprets the Second Amendment is far from an abstract exercise,” said Eric Tirschwell of Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group.
“If the court forces New York to allow more people to carry guns in public, the result will be more people shot and more people killed, and that’s what the evidence and social science tells you.”
New York’s law requires a gun owner to obtain a license to carry a handgun. To get the license, they must demonstrate to local authorities a specific need for carrying the gun. Gun rights advocates say citizens should not have to justify the need to exercise their constitutional right to bear arms. If New York’s “proper cause” requirement is invalidated, the Second Amendment groups will be closely monitoring states with similar laws to ensure that officials take steps to loosen permit rules.
“If they don’t do that,” said Matthew Larosiere, policy director for the Firearms Policy Coalition, “we’ll certainly be suing them.”
Larosiere said he expects most jurisdictions will “see the writing on the wall and attempt to rewrite” policies to align with the ruling. “Perhaps there will be a state or two on the West Coast that doesn’t want to do this and we will insist that they be dragged to court,” he said. “That’s something we’d rather avoid as it’s better to have people’s rights respected.”
Democratic leaders are preparing to defend their laws, which they say are necessary to ensure public safety, particularly in more densely populated areas. What works for Wyoming doesn’t necessarily work for a state like New Jersey, said the state’s acting attorney general, Matthew Platkin, a Democrat.
“This case is critical and concerning. It’s been a yearslong effort to tie the hands of states that would like to pursue common-sense, and in my opinion constitutional, gun-safety measures,” he said. “Any effort to tie our hands makes it harder for us to keep our residents safe.”
To carry a handgun in New Jersey, applicants must show a “justifiable need” related to a specific threat. Permits for people other than former or current law enforcement officials are rarely issued. The restriction is one reason New Jersey has fewer per capita gun deaths per year than most other states, Platkin said, citing data maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is unknown how the justices will rule, but two things are clear: A decision is expected no later than early July, and when the case was argued in November, a majority of members on the conservative-leaning court indicated that they believe Americans generally have a right to carry a handgun outside their home and that New York’s law is too restrictive.
If the court does issue a broad ruling with implications for other states, Platkin said New Jersey will “take the most aggressive position we can to defend our laws.”
Ever since the Supreme Court in 2008 declared a right to gun ownership, lower courts have generally sided with states that restrict the right when determining how the Second Amendment applies beyond people’s homes. The justices have turned down numerous requests from gun rights advocates to review those decisions.
Justice Antonin Scalia’s 2008 decision made clear that the Second Amendment is not unlimited and identified several lawful restrictions, including bans in “sensitive places” such as schools and government buildings. But recently four conservative members of the court — Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas — have expressed frustration in their writings about their colleagues’ apparent reluctance to reenter the gun debate. During November’s argument, the six conservative justices expressed varying levels of support for the two people challenging New York’s law with backing of a National Rifle Association affiliate.
Twenty-five states do not require a permit to carry a firearm in public, while several others require permits but do not ask applicants to justify their need for a weapon. The five states with laws very similar to New York’s would be most directly affected by a ruling. Permit requirements in two other states — Rhode Island and Delaware — are somewhat less stringent because they give state officials less discretion to reject applications, and experts said those states will not necessarily be affected by the decision in the New York case.
Maryland’s permitting system has been challenged repeatedly and upheld in state and federal court. The regulations require applicants to show a “good and substantial reason” for carrying a firearm. Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, predicts the state police will be inundated with applications to carry firearms if the justices invalidate New York’s law.
“Lives will be lost if the norm is that people can carry firearms in public,” Frosh said, adding that an increase in carry permits “will make the lives of law enforcement much more difficult and put all of us in Maryland at greater risk.”
One legal challenge to Maryland’s law is on hold pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case. The justices have yet to decide whether to review a separate challenge to the state’s ban on certain semiautomatic firearms. An appeals court upheld the restrictions, writing that the banned guns are “weapons of war” not protected by the Second Amendment.
Until a court ruling in 2017, gun owners in the nation’s capital who wanted to carry firearms in public also were required to demonstrate a “good reason” before they could obtain a permit. In the months before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down a key provision of the city’s permitting law, there were only 123 active licenses and the D.C. police denied about 77 percent of all applicants.
Since then, thousands have obtained permits, and there were more than 3,600 approvals in fiscal 2021, according to police department data. The city denied less than 10 percent of applicants, and more than half of those who applied during that time were not D.C. residents.
As gun crimes have increased throughout the country in recent years, law enforcement officials have focused on reducing the number of illegal guns, but the proliferation of legal guns would complicate their efforts, officials say.
In New York, law enforcement officials say they are preparing to meet the practical and legal challenges they expect if the Supreme Court weakens the state’s permitting regulations in the case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen.
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“We will have to innovate and adapt to meet the new public safety challenges that the decision may pose — and we will,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, wrote in a June 1 memo to staff. “We are preparing now to meet the moment and continue our fight against gun violence in a post-Bruen world, in collaboration with our legislative and law enforcement partners, and the communities we serve.”
Across New York, at least 65 percent of applicants were approved for an “unrestricted” carry license in 2018 and 2019, according to a state analysis of records submitted to the court. But in New York City, carry permits are restricted to a relatively small number of applicants and largely available only to active and retired law enforcement officers.
If the law changes, the district attorney’s office expects criminal defendants will attempt to get pending weapon-possession charges dismissed and convictions overturned.
Steven Wu, who heads the district attorney’s appeals division and will lead a review of the ruling, said the most pressing concern for a densely populated environment is that many more weapons could be “floating around the city.”
A specific response will depend on the scope of the decision, he said, but law enforcement and elected officials are already considering new regulations that could be passed consistent with any ruling.
“We want to be ready,” Wu said.
Jacobs reported from New York.