Supreme Court takes up major case over right to carry guns outside the home

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Members of the media set up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington.

Al Drago | Reuters

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a major Second Amendment dispute that could settle whether the Constitution protects a right to carry guns in public.

The decision, announced in an order, comes as President Joe Biden faces pressure from activists to take action to limit the availability of high-powered weapons amid outcries over mass shootings.

Those in favor of increased gun control measures have expressed concern that the nation’s top court, which has a 6-3 majority of Republican appointees, could expand the reach of the Second Amendment.

In two landmark cases handed down more than a decade ago, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to carry a gun for self-defense inside the home. Last year, it declined to issue a substantial ruling in its first major Second Amendment case since.

In the case the court agreed to hear on Monday, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Keith Corlett, No. 20-843, individuals and a state organization are challenging a New York law that requires individuals to show “proper cause” in order to receive a permit for the open carry of a handgun.

Robert Nash and Brendan Koch, the individuals who brought the suit, both applied for licenses to carry handguns for self-defense and were denied. A district court reasoned that neither man had proper cause because neither faced “any special or unique danger to [their] life.”

A federal appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision not to grant the men licenses.

In their appeal, authored by former solicitor general Paul Clement, the men argued that New York’s law was unconstitutional under the top court’s precedents in District of Columbia v. Heller, decided in 2008, and McDonald v. City of Chicago, decided in 2010.

“As this Court made clear in both Heller and McDonald, the Second Amendment, at its core, guarantees a right to keep and bear arms for self-defense,” Clement wrote. “Like the threats that might precipitate a need to act in self-defense, that individual and fundamental right necessarily extends beyond the four walls of one’s home.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James wrote in a brief urging the justices not to grant the case that New York’s law was consistent with the Supreme Court’s Heller and McDonald rulings. In McDonald, the court wrote that its opinion wasn’t meant to strike down certain “longstanding prohibitions” on gun use.

James wrote that New York’s law had existed in the same essential form since 1913, and was “supported by a centuries-old tradition of state and local measures regulating the carrying of firearms in public.”

In addition, she wrote, “New York’s law directly advances the State’s compelling interests in protecting the public from gun violence.”

It was widely expected that the Supreme Court would soon take up another major case over the Second Amendment.

Last term, the court granted another case brought by the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association that challenged rules prohibiting the transport of handguns outside New York City. The court ultimately refused to rule on the case after city and state officials eliminated the policy. A majority of the justices decided that the case had become moot, or no longer relevant.

At that time, however, three of the court’s conservatives, Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, said they would not have dismissed the case. A fourth, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, said he agreed with the majority’s decision but nonetheless hoped the justices would address another Second Amendment case “soon.”

The court surprised observers a few months later when it refused to hear any of 10 Second Amendment cases that had reached the justices.

Thomas, at the time, took issue with the court’s refusal to hear one case stemming from a New Jersey law similar to the New York law being challenged by Nash and Koch.

The conservative justice wrote that “in several jurisdictions throughout the country, law-abiding citizens have been barred from exercising the fundamental right to bear arms because they cannot show that they have a ‘justifiable need’ or ‘good reason’ for doing so.”

“One would think that such an onerous burden on a fundamental right would warrant this Court’s review,” Thomas added.

A decision is expected by the summer of 2022.

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