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After more than a decade of staying silent on the Second Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has finally agreed to weigh in on a case that could allow Americans living in states with some of the nation’s strongest gun laws to carry weapons in public.
On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Corlett. In the case, New York’s largest gun advocacy group sued Keith Corlett, the superintendent of the state police, over a nearly 110-year-old New York State law mandating that citizens who wish to carry a handgun outside of their home need “proper cause,” or proof that they have a justifiable reason.
If the justices rule against New York’s law, residents in other “may issue” states, which hold the right to deny someone a license as they see fit, would likely challenge their restrictions as well. Ultimately, anyone with a gun license—a store owner who wants to preserve their livelihood or someone who feels their line of work inherently puts them at risk—could have a better chance of arguing their right to leave home armed with a handgun.
“If the Supreme Court holds that the Second Amendment right to possess a firearm can not be infringed by a state by forcing a person to show proper cause, this would have the effect of rendering many rules in ‘may issue’ jurisdictions unconstitutional,” Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University and author of the case study “Suing the Gun Industry: A Battle at the Crossroads of Gun Control and Mass Torts” told VICE News.
“The impact of this case is potentially much greater on states that have higher levels of restrictions of concealed carry, as it would radically expand the right to carry in those states,” he added.
Right now in New York, someone can’t just say they need a permit to carry a concealed handgun just in case they need to defend themselves; they must demonstrate special circumstances where the need would likely arise.
Populous blue states like California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, —which comprise more than one-fourth of the U.S. population—also have similar laws on the books. In California for example, gun owners must prove “good cause” exists for someone to conceal carry, after which they must complete a firearms safety course, among other requirements. And even then, the state has the right to withhold the license.
“It's pretty monumental, because of the relevance to public safety,” Daniel Webster, the director of the John Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, told VICE News. “The risk to the broader public becomes far more relevant when those rights to concealed carry are extended to all gun owners.”
For more than a decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has narrowly avoided weighing in on cases that could impact gun rights. The last time the justices heard a major gun rights case was in 2008 with District of Columbia v. Heller, which ruled broadly that the Second Amendment protects a citizen’s right to carry in case of confrontation. A follow-up case in 2010, McDonald v. City of Chicago, then fully applied the decision in Heller to the states.
“There was a sense that the Supreme Court was too divided on the issue to provide helpful guidance in elaborating what the scope of the Second Amendment was, under the old makeup of the court,” Lytton said. “One way that the court deals with those issues is to wait until there's a shift in the composition of the court to see whether or not there's some realignment that could provide majorities to provide greater specificity as to what the limits of the Second Amendment are.”
And by waiting more than a decade, that’s exactly what happened. During his four years in office, former President Trump appointed three conservative-leaning justices to the bench, several of whom are more than eager to weigh in on gun rights.
“It's absolutely a sign that the court has shifted since Justice Barrett was confirmed,” Giffords Law Center Litigation Director Hannah Shearer told VICE News. “Before she joined the court, there were four justices who wrote in separate opinions that they were eager to take a Second Amendment case and had expressed hostility towards gun safety laws.”
In 2017, Justice Neil Gorsuch joined a dissent written by Justice Clarence Thomas when the court decided not to hear a case about California’s 10-day waiting period for gun purchases. In his opinion, Thomas wrote that the Supreme Court exhibited a “distressing trend” of treating the Second Amendment as a “disfavored right.”
And when New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Corlett came before the court in 2018, Justice Brett Kavanaugh also opined that the court should weigh in on the constitutionality of the ban soon.
The most recent justice to join the bench, Amy Coney Barrett, has also gained the favor of gun rights activists. In 2019, while serving as a circuit judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals, Barrett dissented that a blanket ban on allowing convicted felons to own firearms conflicts with the Second Amendment.
“It's likely that this is really just the beginning and that the court takes additional cases to potentially expand the Second Amendment far beyond their decision from a decade ago,” Shearer expanded.
Oral arguments in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Corlett are expected to be heard this fall.