The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down as unconstitutional New York state’s limits on carrying concealed handguns in public, handing a landmark victory to gun rights advocates in a nation deeply divided over how to address firearms violence.
The 6-3 ruling, with the court’s conservative justices in the majority and liberal justices in dissent, found that the state’s law, enacted in 1913, violated a person’s right to “keep and bear arms” under the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.
In an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the justices overturned a lower court ruling throwing out a challenge to the law by two gun owners and the New York affiliate of the National Rifle Association, an influential gun rights group closely aligned with Republicans.
The restriction in New York, the fourth-most populous U.S. state, is unconstitutional because it “prevents law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defence needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms,” said Thomas.
It is outrageous that at a moment of national reckoning on gun violence, the Supreme Court has recklessly struck down a New York law that limits those who can carry concealed weapons.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul called the decision “outrageous” given the ”national reckoning on gun violence” currently taking place after mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas.
“In response to this ruling, we are closely reviewing our options — including calling a special session of the legislature,” said Hochul.
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First-year New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who has made crime a key priority, concurred with the governor.
“Put simply, this Supreme Court ruling will put New Yorkers at further risk of gun violence,” said Adams, who had a lengthy career in policing before entering electoral politics.
“We have been preparing for this decision and will continue to do everything possible to work with our federal, state, and local partners to protect our city.”
The recent mass shootings this spring have galvanized U.S. Senate lawmakers, who are closer to bipartisan gun reform for the first time in decades at the federal level. A vote in the chamber could take place as soon as later Thursday.
The 80-page Bipartisan Safer Communities Act would encourage states to keep guns out of the hands of those deemed to be dangerous and tighten background checks for would-be gun purchasers convicted of domestic violence or significant crimes as juveniles.
It does not include more sweeping gun-control measures favoured by Democrats, including U.S. President Joe Biden, such as a ban on assault-style rifles or high-capacity magazines
Biden said in a statement he was “deeply disappointed” by the Supreme Court’s decision.
“In the wake of the horrific attacks in Buffalo and Uvalde, as well as the daily acts of gun violence that do not make national headlines, we must do more as a society — not less — to protect our fellow Americans,” said Biden.
“As the late Justice [Antonin] Scalia recognized, the Second Amendment is not absolute,” he went on, evoking the name of the Supreme Court jurist revered by conservatives.
Justices Steven Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotamayor dissented from the court’s decision.
Breyer listed a number of recent mass shootings including in Buffalo in his lengthy dissent, but in a concurrence, Justice Samuel Alito questioned its relevance.
“The New York law at issue in this case obviously did not stop that perpetrator,” said Alito.
New York congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a Republican, praised the decision as a corrective to “New York’s shameful attempt to shred Second Amendment rights of New Yorkers.”
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice-president of the NRA, called the ruling “a watershed win” that resulted from a decades-long fight led by his organization.
Most significant gun ruling in years from top court
The decision represents the court’s most important statement on gun rights in more than a decade. The court in 2008 recognized for the first time an individual’s right to keep guns at home for self-defence in a case from the District of Columbia, and in 2010 applied that right to the states.
The new ruling underscored how the conservative majority on the court is sympathetic to an expansive reading of Second Amendment rights.
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Under the New York law’s “proper cause” requirement, applicants seeking an unrestricted concealed carry permit must convince a state firearms licensing officer of an actual, rather than speculative, need for self-defence. Officials could also grant licences restricted to certain activities, such as hunting or target practice.
The ruling could lead to many more people securing the licences to carry concealed handguns in the state, undermine similar restrictions in other states and imperil other types of state and local firearms restrictions nationwide by requiring judges to scrutinize them with a more skeptical eye under the Constitution.
Firearms safety groups and gun control activists feared that a sweeping ruling against New York could undermine gun measures such as “red flag” laws targeting the firearms of people deemed dangerous by the courts, expanded criminal background checks for gun buyers or restrictions on selling untraceable “ghost” guns assembled from components purchased online.
They also feared that such a ruling could jeopardize bans on guns in sensitive places such as airports, courthouses, hospitals and schools.
Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in a concurring opinion, said states can still impose requirements on people seeking licences to carry firearms including fingerprinting, background checks, mental health checks and firearms training classes.
Read the decision from the U.S. Supreme Court: