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US supreme court overturns New York handgun law in bitter blow to gun-control push

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6/23/2022 Ed Pilkington and Martin Pengelly in New York
Photograph: José Luis Magaña/AP © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: José Luis Magaña/AP

The US supreme court has opened the door for almost all law-abiding Americans to carry concealed and loaded handguns in public, after the conservative majority struck down a New York law that placed strict restrictions on firearms outside the home.

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The governor of New York, a Democrat, said the ruling was “not just reckless, it’s reprehensible”. Pointing to recent mass shootings in New York and Texas, a leading progressive group called the ruling “shameful and outrageous”.

Joe Biden said: “This ruling contradicts both common sense and the constitution and should deeply trouble us all.”

On the left, outrage is growing over the court’s rightward march. Earlier this week, the court handed down a ruling which attacked the separation of church and state. As soon as Friday, it is expected to undermine or remove the right to abortion, guaranteed since 1973, and to reduce the federal government’s ability to cut emissions contributing to the climate crisis.

The New York law struck down on Thursday required anyone wanting to carry a handgun in public to prove that they had a “proper cause” to do so.

The decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v Bruen renders the law an unconstitutional violation of the second amendment right to bear arms.

In his ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote: “Apart from a few late-19th-century outlier jurisdictions, American governments simply have not broadly prohibited the public carry of commonly used firearms for personal defense. Nor have they generally required law-abiding, responsible citizens to ‘demonstrate a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community’ to carry arms in public.”

The New York law, Thomas wrote, also violated the 14th amendment, which made second-amendment rights applicable to the states.

In his statement, Biden pointed to the longevity of New York gun laws and to past supreme court acceptance of the need to regulate gun ownership.

The president said: “Since 1911, the state of New York has required individuals who would like to carry a concealed weapon in public to show a need to do so for the purpose of self defense and to require a license. More than a century later, the United States supreme court has chosen to strike down New York’s long-established authority to protect its citizens.”

Biden added: “As the late [conservative] Justice [Antonin] Scalia recognised, the second amendment is not absolute. For centuries, states have regulated who may purchase or possess weapons, the types of weapons they may use and the places they may carry those weapons. The courts have upheld these regulations.

“I call on Americans across the country to make their voices heard on gun safety. Lives are on the line.”


Video: Supreme Court gun ruling impacts states beyond New York (NBC News)

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Biden said the ruling ‘contradicts common sense and the constitution’. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Biden said the ruling ‘contradicts common sense and the constitution’. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The ruling has profound implications for the safety and conduct of up to 83 million people in New York and seven other states plus Washington DC with similar “proper cause” laws. They include heavily populated states, such as California and New Jersey, which account for roughly three out of every four Americans.

Just weeks ago, an 18-year-old carrying a legally bought assault-style rifle shot and killed 10 people in a racist attack on a supermarket in a majority Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York.

Ten days later, another 18-year-old broke into an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and killed 19 children and two adults before being shot dead by law enforcement.

Democratic and Republican senators have since agreed a framework for gun reform. On Thursday Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said the proposals did not “lay one finger on the second amendment” and would make the country safer. But any gun legislation inevitably faces strong headwinds, with the potential to blow all the way to the court McConnell helped pack with conservatives.

In his dissent to the New York ruling, Stephen Breyer, a liberal justice soon to retire, wrote: “In 2020, 45,222 Americans were killed by firearms. Since the start of this year there have been 277 reported mass shootings – an average of more than one per day.

“Gun violence has now surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death among children and adolescents. Many states have tried to address some of the dangers of gun violence just described by passing laws that limit, in various ways, who may purchase, carry, or use firearms of different kinds.

“The court today severely burdens states’ efforts to do so.”

Rahna Epting, executive director of the progressive group MoveOn, lamented “a shameful and outrageous decision which will lead to more deaths and more violence”, adding: “The conservative-packed supreme court, in concert with Republicans in Congress, is ensuring our schools, our grocery stores, and our churches will continue to be targets of violence and not the sanctuaries and safe places they should be.”

The court has steadily undermined gun laws. In 2008 it recognised a right to keep guns at home for self-defense. It extended that right 2010.

The New York case reached the court after two men sued the state. Under the “proper cause” law, the men could secure unlimited permission to carry concealed guns in public only if they could demonstrate a special need for self-protection. Lawyers argued that carrying a firearm outside the home was a “fundamental constitutional right. It is not some extraordinary action that requires an extraordinary demonstration of need.”

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Several civil rights and gun safety groups attempted to dissuade the court from gutting New York regulations. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued that lifting controls on carrying guns in public places would harm first amendment rights such as assembly, association and speech. Gun control advocates warned that scrapping the law could exacerbate relations between police and citizens because anyone coming into contact with law enforcement would be more likely to be legally armed.

On Thursday, the governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, said: “The supreme court is setting us backwards in dealing with gun violence … This decision is not just reckless, it’s reprehensible.” Hochul also said she was “prepared to call the legislature back into session to deal with this”.

Letitia James, the New York attorney general, said the decision would not “deter us from standing up to the gun lobby and their repeated efforts to endanger New Yorkers”.

Brian Frosh, the attorney general of Maryland, said the ruling would “make the lives of law enforcement more difficult and more perilous. The epidemic of gun violence sweeping our nation demonstrates daily the folly of introducing more guns into this boiling cauldron.”

Epting said: “It is hard to imagine a supreme court more out of touch with the people. Commonsense policies to reduce gun violence are supported by nine out of 10 Americans. This court has once again shown its true colours. It is now nothing more than the political arm of the most extreme elements of the Republican party.”

Pointing to McConnell’s unprecedented denial of even a hearing to Barack Obama’s third nominee – Merrick Garland, now attorney general – and the confirmation of three justices under Donald Trump, Epting said Republicans “stole seats and packed this court to enact what voters have repeatedly rejected at the ballot box.

“It is far past time we expand the court, reform it, and restore balance to our judicial system.”

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