The US Supreme Court Thursday struck down a New York law requiring individuals applying for unrestricted handgun licenses to demonstrate a greater need for self defense than the general public.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion in the 6-3 decision, with Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, and Chief Justice John Roberts joining. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissent, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Appellants Brandon Koch and Robert Nash applied for unrestricted handgun licenses in 2014 and 2017, respectively. Both men were denied unrestricted licenses because New York licensing officers found that neither man faced “special dangers” that required the concealed carry of a handgun.
Koch, Nash, and the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association sued the superintendent of the New York State Police over the denials, claiming that their Fourteenth Amendment rights were being violated. According to the Supreme Court, the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to follow the Second Amendment, which was initially only applicable to the federal government.
Both the US District Court for the Northern District of New York and the US Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit denied the plaintiffs’ claims. Both courts ruled that Kachalsky v. County of Westchester, a Second Circuit case in which the court ruled that New York’s permit requirements were constitutional, preempted the plaintiff’s claims.
Thomas disagreed. He wrote that New York’s license requirements were inconsistent with constitutional principles and American tradition:
At the end of this long journey through the Anglo-American history of public carry, we conclude that respondents have not met their burden to identify an American tradition justifying the State’s proper-cause requirement. The Second Amendment guaranteed to “all Americans” the right to bear commonly used arms in public subject to certain reasonable, well-defined restrictions. … American governments simply have not … required law-abiding, responsible citizens to “demonstrate a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community” in order to carry arms in public.
Breyer wrote in his dissent that “The primary difference between the Court’s view and mine is that I believe the [Second] Amendment allows States to take account of the serious problems posed by gun violence.” He elaborated by saying:
Beyond this historical inquiry, the Court refuses to employ what it calls “means-end scrutiny.” That is, it refuses to consider whether New York has a compelling interest in regulating the concealed carriage of handguns or whether New York’s law is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. Although I agree that history can often be a useful tool in determining the meaning and scope of constitutional provisions, I believe the Court’s near-exclusive reliance on that single tool today goes much too far.
This decision will doubtlessly have political implications due to an ongoing gun-control debate in the US. On June 22 the US Senate voted to advance new bipartisan gun control legislation, partially in response to recent mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo.