The Supreme Court will soon issue its first major Second Amendment opinion in more than a decade, coming after a pair of recent mass shootings sent the nation reeling and reignited a tense debate over gun rights and public safety.
The conservative majority court is expected to rule in the coming days or weeks in a pending dispute over New York state’s tight limits on the concealed carry of handguns.
Experts said that while it’s unclear just how broadly the Supreme Court would rule, the restrictive New York law is likely to be invalidated in a decision that could have ramifications for gun control efforts across the country.
“It does seem relatively clear that the court is going to strike down New York’s law and make it harder for cities and states to restrict concealed carry of firearms,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA School of Law. “It remains to be seen exactly how broad the Supreme Court goes, but one thing is clear: as mass shootings become more of a political issue, the court is going to take options away from lawmakers on the basis of the Second Amendment.”
The justices are expected to hand down an opinion as soon as next week but no later than late June or early July.
As they deliberate, the U.S. is again engaged in a wrenching debate over the constitutional right to bear arms and Americans’ concerns over personal safety in a country with more than 390 million privately owned guns.
The discussion has intensified as a result of two recent mass shootings that shattered communities in New York and Texas.
On May 14, an 18-year-old gunman armed with an AR-15 style assault rifle and clad in body armor entered a Buffalo supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood and killed 10 and injured three others; all but two of the victims were Black.
Ten days later, an 18-year-old gunman armed with an AR-15 style assault rifle, high-capacity magazines, and a handgun carried out a massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers in the country’s deadliest school shooting in almost a decade.
In the aftermath of the slayings, Democrats called for a renewed push to pass gun control legislation. But those efforts were unlikely to clear the 50-50 Senate, which would require support from at least 10 Republicans to overcome a filibuster.
Republican lawmakers, including some top funding recipients from gun rights groups, have sought to shift attention away from firearms and onto issues like mental health and limiting entrances at schools.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court in the pending New York case seems prepared to pick up where it left off more than a decade ago.
In the court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the court ruled 5-4 that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep a gun in the home for self-defense. Although the court in the Heller case noted that the Second Amendment right is “not unlimited,” the justices largely left unanswered the question of which gun restrictions are permitted under the Constitution.
Joseph Blocher, a law professor at Duke who co-directs the Duke Center for Firearms Law, called the case a potential blockbuster.
“I do think that this case will, more than Heller did, tell us what forms of gun regulation are constitutional and why,” he said.
The New York law requires concealed carry applicants to demonstrate that they have a special need for the license, beyond a basic desire for self-defense. New York’s tight restriction is among eight states and the District of Columbia that give wide discretion to licensing officials over these determinations.
The Department of Justice, on behalf of the Biden administration, argued in support of New York and urged the court to defer to the longstanding practice of allowing legislatures to place reasonable limits on firearms to protect public safety.
But during oral argument in November, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court seemed skeptical of New York’s strict limits on the carrying of guns outside the home.
Blocher said it’s likely the law will be struck down as unconstitutional and that, as a result, lawmakers could be left with fewer options for regulating firearms.
“At least until now, the scope of gun regulation has been primarily a question for politics and we decide collectively the degree and the ways in which we want to regulate,” he said. “The Second Amendment puts some outside limits on that, but the Supreme Court has repeatedly reiterated that the Second Amendment permits various forms of gun regulation, and in the (New York) case, the court seems likely to restrict the available policy space, so we will probably have fewer options.”
Blocher said the court’s most likely grounds for striking down the New York law would be a ruling that either says the Second Amendment extends outside the home to some degree and New York has made it too hard to exercise that right, or a finding that lawmakers gave too much discretion to licensing officials. A third, less likely option, would be for the court to prohibit outright licensing systems for concealed carry.
According to Winkler, of UCLA Law, the court’s ruling could have a major impact on public safety.
“We already know more guns equals more crime and we have an awful raft of mass shootings – gun homicides have spiked in the last couple of years,” he said. “We have a major gun violence problem and expanding Second Amendment protections, greater than they already are, is likely to make it much harder for lawmakers to enact effective laws to reduce gun violence.”