Supreme Court lines up rare gun arguments for next term

Case will be a test of how far the justices might extend constitutional gun rights outside the home

Gun safety advocates demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court before the start of oral arguments in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York on Dec. 2, 2019. The city ultimately withdrew the law, so the Supreme Court ruled that the case was moot. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Gun safety advocates demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court before the start of oral arguments in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York on Dec. 2, 2019. The city ultimately withdrew the law, so the Supreme Court ruled that the case was moot. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 26, 2021 at 10:37am, Updated at 1:26pm

The Supreme Court will decide a major gun rights case next term about whether a New York law is unconstitutional because it requires a reason other than self-defense to get a license to carry a concealed weapon outside the home.

Any ruling will be the first in a decade to address gun rights under the Second Amendment, and the first before a court where conservatives make up a 6-3 majority. A decision would be expected sometime next year.

It will be a test of how far the justices might extend constitutional gun rights outside the home, since 5-4 rulings in 2008 and 2010 that found an individual right to possess a firearm at home for self-defense.

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The move puts the court back into the incendiary national debate over gun control laws at a time when Congress, despite a series of mass shootings over the years at concerts, schools and other public spaces, stands at a partisan deadlock over numerous gun control proposals backed mostly by Democrats.

It takes four justices to agree to hear a case. The court announced Monday that it agreed to hear the case with its own version of the question at issue: “Whether the State’s denial of petitioners’ applications for concealed-carry licenses for self-defense violated the Second Amendment.”

How the Supreme Court rules could wipe out or force changes in laws in states and municipalities that clamp down on who can get a concealed carry permit, such as New York’s law that requires a “proper cause” to get one.

The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, in its petition to the court, said the state makes it “virtually impossible for the ordinary law-abiding citizen to obtain a license.” One of the men bringing the challenge was denied a license when he cited a string of recent robberies in his neighborhood.

The nation’s appeals courts have split on whether the Supreme Court’s previous decisions mean that states can “cut off the right to keep and bear arms at a homeowner’s door,” the gun group said.

“The time has come for this Court to resolve this critical constitutional impasse and reaffirm the citizens’ fundamental right to carry a handgun for self-defense,” the association told the justices.

New York had asked the Supreme Court not to decide the case and told the justices in a brief that numerous New York residents have successfully satisfied the “proper cause” standard, which “generally requires a showing that the applicant has a non-speculative need for self-defense.”

Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor who specializes in the Second Amendment, tweeted Monday that if the Supreme Court strikes down discretionary permitting requirements for concealed carry, it will likely have a major impact on the number of guns carried on the streets of Los Angeles, New York, Boston and San Francisco.

States where officials have discretion on concealed carry permits are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, as well as the District of Columbia, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

But most states either do not require a permit to carry a concealed weapon or have so-called “shall issue” permitting that allows residents to get approved by meeting certain criteria, after which government officials have little discretion in the decision.

In states that have shall-issue permitting, about 10 to 14 percent of adults obtain concealed carry permits, Winkler said.

The Supreme Court had long avoided major cases that address the extent to which Congress or state lawmakers can pass laws that restrict firearms. The justices have passed on opportunities since 2010 to hear challenges to laws that ban semi-automatic rifles, limit the number of bullets a magazine can hold, clamp down on who can get a concealed carry permit, institute waiting periods for firearm purchases and more.

But court watchers thought the confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, along with Justice Amy Coney Barrett filling a vacancy left by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg last year, would mean the court’s conservative wing is more free to take aim at those state laws.

Justice Clarence Thomas and other conservative justices have noted their objections to the Supreme Court’s reluctance. When the court declined to hear a challenge to a California law that required an average person to wait 10 days after buying a gun to get it, Thomas wrote that the “right to keep and bear arms is apparently this Court’s constitutional orphan.”

The National Rifle Association said in a press release on the decision that it is “hard to overstate how important this case is” and that it will affect laws in “many states.”

“The court rarely takes Second Amendment cases. Now it’s decided to hear one of the most critical Second Amendment issues,” said Jason Ouimet, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action. “We’re confident that the court will tell New York and the other states that our Second Amendment right to defend ourselves is fundamental, and doesn’t vanish when we leave our homes.”

The Giffords Law Center on Monday said the outlook is not good for gun safety laws at the Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court’s willingness to take up this case is a reckless response to our nation’s grief and could take us in the completely wrong direction by restricting commonsense gun safety regulation,” Hannah Shearer, the center’s litigation director, said in a press release.

“Today’s announcement is a warning sign that our nation’s highest court is poised to brush aside the will of the people and instead side with gun lobby groups seeking to eliminate even the most modest firearm laws,” Shearer said.