Supreme Court takes case seeking to expand concealed-carry rights in public places

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a challenge to New York's gun licensing requirements that could expand protections for carrying concealed weapons in public, putting a major Second Amendment dispute before the justicesfor the first time in years. 

The nation's highest court overruled handgun bans in Washington and Chicago in 2008 and 2010 in two blockbuster cases that affirmed the rights of Americans to possess guns in their homes but left unanswered questions about carrying in public. The court has largely skirted that and other Second Amendment issues since then.

In that time, the court has grown more conservative and several of the justices have signaled a desire in dissents to address unresolved questions about gun rights. Former President Donald Trump's three nominees to the court have given conservatives an ostensible 6-3 edge, assuming the justices break along ideological lines.

"There's every reason to be concerned because the stakes could not be higher," said Jonathan Lowy, chief counsel and vice president of the gun violence prevention group Brady. "I don't think we should be assuming that the Supreme Court will rule against gun violence prevention but there is a grave risk that they will."  

Experts on both sides of the issue have predicted the court was poised to consider a gun rights challenge. But the justices passed earlier this month on three challenges to a federal ban on gun ownership for people convicted of nonviolent crimes, disappointing Second Amendment advocates who hoped a more conservative court would begin to chip away at the restriction.

That put even more focus on the New York case.

"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 National Rifle Association 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 New York case made its way to the court amid a series of recent mass shootings, including in ColoradoGeorgia and Indiana. It's not clear whether such events weigh into the decision to take a case or not because the court generally doesn't say. 

The landmark 5-4 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 specifically nodded to the right to own a gun for lawful purposes, like self-defense within the home. 

"Handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defense in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid," the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in that decision. But that left unresolved questions about whether the Constitution guarantees a right to carry a gun outside the home.

In the New York case, Robert Nash and Brandon Koch applied for licenses to do just that. But they were rejected for failing "to show 'proper cause' to carry a firearm in public for the purpose of self-defense." 

They challenged the decision with a lawsuit against Keith Corlett, the superintendent of state police at the time. They asserted that the state rules on gun licensing would deem carrying a weapon "a crime unless one can preemptively convince a state that she enjoys an especially good reason for wanting" to do so.

"Good, even impeccable, moral character plus a simple desire to exercise a fundamental right is, according to these courts, not sufficient,” Nash and Koch told the court. “Nor is living or being employed in a 'high-crime area.'"

State officials defended the licensing law, which dates to 1913, as stemming from an Anglo-American tradition of regulating firearms outside the home. Nash and Koch received restricted licenses typically given for hunting, target shooting, or employment.

"Under New York’s law, applicants who seek an unrestricted license to carry a concealed handgun in public must establish 'proper cause,'" which means a nonspeculative need for self-defense, state officials told the court.

Gun control groups warned that the case could have a significant impact. 

"Gun violence has only worsened during the pandemic, and a ruling that opened the door to weakening our gun laws could make it even harder for cities and states to grapple with this public health crisis," said Eric Tirschwell, managing director of Everytown Law, a group that supports gun regulations.

"Fortunately, the courts have repeatedly backed states’ authority to pass public safety laws," he added, "and while the Supreme Court’s makeup has changed, the Constitution has not."