WASHINGTON, June 23 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday declared for the first time that the U.S. Constitution protects an individual’s right to carry a handgun in public for self-defense, handing a landmark victory to gun rights advocates in a nation deeply divided over how to address firearms violence.
The 6-3 ruling, with the court’s conservative justices in the majority and liberal justices in dissent, struck down New York state’s limits on carrying concealed handguns outside the home. The court found that the law, enacted in 1913, violated a person’s right to “keep and bear arms” under the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.
The ruling, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, declared that the Constitution protects “an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.”
Thomas added: “We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need.”
The ruling could undermine similar restrictions in other states and imperil other types of state and local firearms restrictions nationwide.
Gun rights, held dear by many Americans and promised by the country’s 18th century founders, are a contentious issue in a nation with high levels of firearms violence including numerous mass shootings. President Joe Biden, who has called gun violence a national embarrassment, condemned the decision.
“This ruling contradicts both common sense and the Constitution, and should deeply trouble us all,” Biden said. “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.”
The United States has experienced hundreds of deaths from dozens of mass shootings in recent years. Just in recent weeks, 19 children and two teachers were killed on May 24 at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and 10 people were slain on May 14 at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York.
The New York restriction is unconstitutional because it “prevents law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms,” Thomas added.
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in dissent that the court had expanded gun rights without wrestling with the “nature or severity” of firearms violence in a country where there are more guns per person than any other nation.
“I fear that the court’s interpretation ignores these significant dangers and leaves states without the ability to address them,” Breyer wrote.
The justices overturned a lower court ruling throwing out a challenge to the law by two gun owners and the New York affiliate of the National Rifle Association (NRA), an influential gun rights group closely aligned with Republicans.
The decision represents the court’s most important statement on gun rights in more than a decade. The court in 2008 recognized for the first time an individual’s right to keep guns at home for self-defense in a case from the District of Columbia, and in 2010 applied that right to the states.
The new ruling underscored how the 6-3 conservative majority on the court is sympathetic to an expansive reading of Second Amendment rights.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, called the ruling “absolutely shocking.” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said officials will review licensing policies and how sensitive locations are defined, adding that “we cannot allow New York to become the Wild West.”
Under the New York law’s “proper cause” requirement, applicants seeking an unrestricted concealed carry permits must convince a state firearms licensing officer of an actual, rather than speculative, need for self-defense. Officials could also grant licenses restricted to certain activities, such as hunting or target practice.
The ruling said that New York’s concealed firearm regime is at odds with the text and history of the Second Amendment and how gun rights were protected throughout U.S. history.
Firearms safety groups and gun control activists feared the ruling could undermine gun measures such as “red flag” laws targeting the firearms of people deemed dangerous by the courts, expanded criminal background checks for gun buyers or restrictions on selling untraceable “ghost” guns assembled from components purchased online. They also feared it could jeopardize bans on guns in sensitive places such as airports, courthouses, hospitals and schools.
The ruling will affect at least six states including New York, as well as the District of Columbia, that empower officials to decide whether people can carry concealed handguns in public even if they pass criteria such as criminal background checks. Three other states, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island, also give officials some discretion, according to the ruling.
The ruling acknowledged that states can prohibit guns in “sensitive places” and that such prohibitions can likely go beyond what was historically considered a sensitive place, such as courthouses and legislative buildings.
Thomas wrote that courts “can use analogies to those historical regulations” of sensitive places.
But Breyer asked: “So where does that leave the many locations in a modern city with no obvious 18th- or 19th-century analog? What about subways, nightclubs, movie theaters, and sports stadiums? The court does not say.”
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, called the ruling “a watershed win” that resulted from a decades-long fight led by his organization.
Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh in a concurring opinion said states can still impose requirements on people seeking licenses to carry firearms including fingerprinting, background checks, mental health checks and firearms training classes.
In another concurring opinion, conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the court has said “nothing about who may lawfully possess a firearm or the requirements that must be met to buy a gun. Nor does it decide anything about the kinds of weapons that people may possess.”
Alito disputed that gun regulations like the one in New York would deter mass shootings, mentioning the recent Buffalo massacre.
“The New York law at issue in this case obviously did not stop that perpetrator,” Alito wrote.