The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in a major case involving whether there's a fundamental right to carry a concealed handgun outside the home in public for self-defense.
The court struck down a century-old New York law that has restricted the concealed carry of handguns in public to only those with a "proper cause."
The 6-3 opinion was authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's most senior conservative member. The three liberal justices dissented.
Thomas wrote that the Second and Fourteenth Amendments protect an individual's right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.
"Because the State of New York issues public-carry licenses only when an applicant demonstrates a special need for self-defense, we conclude that the State's licensing regime violates the Constitution," Thomas wrote.
"The constitutional right to bear arms in public for self-defense is not 'a second-class right, subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees,'" he wrote.
"In keeping with Heller, we hold that when the Second Amendment's plain text covers an individual's conduct, the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct. To justify its regulation, the government may not simply posit that the regulation promotes an important interest. Rather, the government must demonstrate that the regulation is consistent with this Nation's historical tradition of firearm regulation," Thomas wrote.
"Only if a firearm regulation is consistent with this Nation's historical tradition may a court conclude that the individual's conduct falls outside the Second Amendment's 'unqualified command,'" the opinion said.
The decision will have the most immediate impact on New York and seven other states -- home to 80 million Americans -- with a similar "proper cause" requirement on the concealed carry of guns in public.
Most states have more lenient rules on carrying guns in public. Thirty-one states allow permit-less open carry and 21 allow concealed carry without a permit.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh underscored a key limitation preserved by the court's decision: licensing requirements for concealed carry are still OK, just not "discretionary" ones.
Forty-three states require a license to concealed carry so long as a gun owner passes a background check and completes safety training.
"Going forward, therefore, the 43 States that employ objective shall-issue licensing regimes for carrying handguns for self-defense may continue to do so. Likewise, the 6 States including New York potentially affected by today's decision may continue to require licenses for carrying handguns for self-defense so long as those States employ objective licensing requirements like those used by the 43 shall issue States," Kavanaugh writes.
On the whole, Thomas' opinion is sweeping, tightening the standard court's use to evaluate state gun restrictions and potentially opening the floodgates to a wave of new legal challenges nationwide.
"When the Second Amendment's plain text covers an individual's conduct, the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct," Thomas writes. "The government must then justify its regulation by demonstrating that it is consistent with the Nation's historical tradition of firearm regulation. Only then may a court conclude that the individual's conduct falls outside the Second Amendment's 'unqualified command.'"
Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissent joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, opened his opinion by noting the record of 45,000 Americans killed by firearms in 2020.
"Many States have tried to address some of the dangers of gun violence just described by passing laws that limit, in various ways, who may purchase, carry, or use firearms of different kinds. The Court today severely burdens States' efforts to do so," Breyer writes.
"Because I cannot agree with the Court's decision to strike New York's law down without allowing for discovery or the development of any evidentiary record, without considering the State's compelling interest in preventing gun violence and protecting the safety of its citizens, and without considering the potentially deadly consequences of its decision, I respectfully dissent."
The case, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, involves a state requirement that applicants for concealed carry permits show "proper cause" -- a unique need for individual self-protection -- in order to be approved.
Two New York gun owners challenged the century-old law as highly discretionary and unconstitutional. State officials granted a limited license for concealed carry to each, but they were forbidden from possessing a weapon in places frequented by the public.
"Why isn't it good enough to say, I live in a violent area and I want to be able to defend myself?" asked Justice Kavanaugh during oral arguments in the case last year. "That's the real concern, isn't it, with any constitutional right, if it's the discretion of an individual officer, that seems inconsistent with an objective constitutional right."
Gun rights groups insist armed, otherwise, law-abiding citizens would not pose an enhanced threat to public safety.
State officials argued its permitting regime is rooted in history and tradition and critical to limiting the threat of gun violence in sensitive places. Seven other U.S. states -- home to more than 80 million Americans -- have similar "proper cause" permitting regimes.
Less restrictive concealed carry regimes would "multiply the number of firearms carried in high-density places," New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood argued at the court last year. "Proliferation of arms on subways terrifies a lot of people."
President Joe Biden, in his first reaction, said he was "disappointed" by the ruling which, he said, "contradicts both common sense and the Constitution, and should deeply trouble us all."
"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," he said in a statement, adding he is "committed to doing everything in my power to reduce gun violence and make our communities safer."
Biden urged states to continue to enact "commonsense gun laws" and cited the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who authored the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller decision in 2008, which established the right to have a gun for self-defense in the home, to also say the Second Amendment is not unlimited or "absolute."
New York Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed action, saying the state is "closely reviewing our options -- including calling a special session of the legislature."
In Washington, the Justice Department said, "We respectfully disagree with the Court's conclusion that the Second Amendment forbids New York's reasonable requirement that individuals seeking to carry a concealed handgun must show that they need to do so for self-defense. The Department of Justice remains committed to saving innocent lives by enforcing and defending federal firearms laws, partnering with state, local and tribal authorities and using all legally available tools to tackle the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our communities."