WASHINGTON (AP) — In a major extension of gun rights following a series of mass shootings, the Supreme Court said Thursday that Americans have the right to carry firearms in public for self-defense, a ruling likely to lead to more people being legally armed . The decision came out as Congress and states debated gun control legislation.
About a quarter of the US population lives in states expected to be affected by the ruling, which repealed a New York gun law. The Supreme Court’s first major gun decision in more than a decade tied the court 6-3, with the court’s conservatives in the majority and liberals disagreeing.
Across the court, Capitol lawmakers rushed to pass gun laws prompted by recent massacres in Texas, New York and California. Senators paved the way for the measure, modest in scope but still the most far-reaching in decades.
Also Thursday, to underscore the nation’s deep division over the issue, the sister of a 9-year-old girl killed in the shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas, pleaded with state lawmakers to pass gun laws. The Republican-controlled legislature has abolished gun restrictions over the past decade.
President Joe Biden said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed” by the Supreme Court ruling. It “is against both common sense and the Constitution, and would be of great concern to all of us,” he said.
He urged states to pass new laws. “I call on Americans across the country to make their voices heard on gun safety. Lives are at stake,” he said.
The decision repealed a New York law that requires people to demonstrate a specific need to carry a gun in order to obtain a license to carry a gun in public in a covert manner. The judges said the requirement violates the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.”
Judge Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority that the Constitution “protects a person’s right to carry a gun outdoors for self-defense”. That right is not a “second-class right,” Thomas wrote. “We know of no other constitutional right that a person may exercise only after demonstrating a special need to government officials.”
California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island all have laws similar to those of New York. Those laws are expected to be challenged soon.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, DN.Y., said the ruling came at a particularly painful time as New York mourned the deaths of 10 people in a shooting at a Buffalo supermarket. “This decision is not just reckless. It is objectionable. It’s not what New Yorkers want,” she said.
Gun control groups called the decision a significant setback. Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice and an expert on the Second Amendment, wrote on Twitter that the decision could be the “largest extension of gun rights” by the Supreme Court in US history.
Republican lawmakers were among those who welcomed the decision. Tom King, president of the plaintiff’s New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, said he was relieved.
“The New York State lawful and legal gun owner will no longer be prosecuted by laws that have nothing to do with the safety of the people and will do nothing to make the people safer,” he said. “And maybe now we can go after criminals and perpetrators of these heinous acts.”
The court’s ruling differs somewhat from public opinion. About half of voters in the 2020 presidential election said gun laws in the US should be made tougher, according to AP VoteCast, a comprehensive poll of the electorate. Another one-third said the laws should be enforced as they are, while only about 1 in 10 said gun laws should be less strict.
About 8 in 10 Democratic voters said gun laws needed to be tightened, VoteCast showed. Among Republican voters, about half said the laws should be enforced as they are, while the remaining half are narrowly divided between more and less strict.
In a dissent joined by his liberal colleagues, Judge Stephen Breyer focused on the toll of gun violence.
Since the beginning of this year, “there have already been 277 reports of mass shootings — more than one per day on average,” Breyer wrote. † He said the ruling would put a “heavy” burden on states’ efforts to pass laws “which in various ways restrict who can buy, carry or use firearms of different types.”
Several other conservative judges who endorsed Thomas’ majority view also wrote separately to add their views.
Justice Samuel Alito criticized Breyer’s dissent, questioning the relevance of his discussion of mass shootings and other gun death statistics. Alito wrote that the court had decided “nothing about who can legally own a firearm or the requirements that must be met in order to buy a gun” and nothing “about the kinds of weapons people are allowed to own”.
“Nowadays, unfortunately, many Americans have good reason to fear that if they cannot protect themselves, they will become victims.” The Second Amendment, he said, “guarantees their right to do so.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, along with Chief Justice John Roberts, pointed out the limits of the decision. States can still require people to obtain a license to carry a weapon, Kavanaugh wrote, requiring “fingerprints, background checks, mental health checks, and training in firearms handling and laws regarding the use of force, including other possible requirements.”
Supporters of the New York law had argued that knocking it down would lead to more guns on the streets and more violent crime. Gun violence, which is increasing during the coronavirus pandemic, has risen again. Arms purchases have also increased.
In most countries, gun owners have little difficulty carrying their guns legally in public. But that had been harder in New York and the handful of states with similar laws. The New York law, in effect since 1913, says that in order to carry a concealed gun in public, a person applying for a license must demonstrate “good reason,” a specific need to carry the gun.
The state had issued unlimited permits that allowed a person to carry a weapon anywhere and limited permits that allowed a person to carry the weapon, but only for specific purposes such as hunting and shooting at targets or to and from their business.
The New York law was challenged by the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, which describes itself as the nation’s oldest firearms advocacy group, and two men seeking an unrestricted ability to carry guns outside their homes.
The Supreme Court last issued a major gun decision in 2010. In that decision and a 2008 ruling, the judges established a nationwide right to keep a gun at home for self-defense. The question before the court this time was only about carrying a gun outdoors. Thomas, who turned 74 Thursday, wrote in his opinion: “Nothing in the text of the Second Amendment distinguishes between the home and the public with regard to the right to have and bear arms.”
Associated Press reporters Mark Sherman, Hannah Fingerhut and Zeke Miller in Washington and Michael Hill in East Greenbush, New York, contributed to this report.