An End to Gun Controls? The Crunch Supreme Court Case Explained

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Wednesday in a challenge to a New York gun licensing law that could prove a crucial case for the future of gun control legislation.

At issue in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen is a 108-year-old state law requiring those who wish to carry a concealed weapon to show "proper cause" before receiving a license to do so.

Gun advocacy group the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, along with Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, are taking the case and arguing that the state's denial of licenses to the men violated the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Nash and Koch were denied concealed carry licenses but were granted "restricted" licenses that allow them to carry a gun outside of their home for the purpose of target shooting and hunting.

Additionally, Koch is permitted to carry a firearm for self-defense while traveling to and from work.

Under the "proper cause" requirement, applicants for a concealed carry license for handguns must show that they have a special need to defend themselves, such as being the subject of repeated physical threats. Advocates believe this requirement violates the Second Amendment.

The Court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority, could upend gun control measures throughout the country if the justices decide to strike down New York's law.

Several states, including California, Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey, have similar laws, while several cities have also passed similar measures. Those laws could be rendered unconstitutional if the Court finds in favor of those challenging the New York law.

Keep and Bear Arms

The challengers argue that New York's "restrictive and discretionary regime is upside down."

"The Second Amendment makes the right to carry arms for self-defense the rule, not the exception, and fundamental rights cannot be left to the whim of local government officials," they wrote in their brief on the merits of their case.

They argue that the Second Amendment grants both the right to "keep" arms - to own and possess them - and to "bear" arms for defense by carrying them outside a person's home.

"While the right to 'keep arms' may have its greatest application in the home, the right to carry arms obviously extends outside the home," the challengers' brief said.

Wide Latitude

The state of New York argues that while the Second Amendment protects the right to carry a firearm outside the home, government officials can place restrictions on that right because it is not absolute. In their brief, the state notes that such restrictions have long been imposed.

"History shows that local officials have long had wide latitude to decide where and under what circumstances firearms could be carried in public, and to restrict the carrying of concealable firearms, particularly in populous areas. Petitioners do not dispute that public-carry laws have continuously been in place throughout the Anglo-American world for more than seven hundred years," the state's brief said.

New York also argues that the law should not be subject to strict scrutiny but rather the less rigorous constitutional standard of intermediate scrutiny, which the state says the current law satisfies. New York argues that strict scrutiny does not apply because the Court found in 2008's District of Columbia v. Heller that states could limit some public carrying of firearms.

"New York's law satisfies intermediate scrutiny," the state's brief said. "New York has compelling interests in reducing violent crime and gun violence."

"The challenged law substantially furthers those urgent goals, as a wealth of empirical studies confirms," the brief went on. "And it does so in a tailored manner, by allowing individuals to carry handguns in times and places for which they have established a non-speculative need for armed self-defense, hunting, or target shooting."

History and Tradition

Both sides claim that history supports their position and the decision could come down to the justices' interpretation of a 700-year period of American and English history.

The decision in Heller found that the Second Amendment granted a right to keep a gun in the home for self-defense and relied heavily upon historical analysis. The majority opinion was written by the late conservative Associate Justice Antonin Scalia but his analysis was disputed by the dissenting justices. Heller was decided on a 5-4 vote.

In their brief challenging the law, counsel for the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association wrote: "History and tradition surrounding the ratification of the Second Amendment make abundantly clear that the founding generation understood the Amendment to enshrine a right to carry arms outside the home for self-defense."

They cited the decision in Heller, the 1689 English Bill of Rights and legal opinion from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

The state of New York drew the opposite conclusion while also drawing on history.

"Over the last seven hundred years, Anglo-American governments have regularly restricted where and when concealable weapons may be carried in public," the state's brief said. "From the Middle Ages onward, laws on both sides of the
Atlantic broadly restricted the public carrying of firearms and other deadly weapons, particularly in populous places."

It remains to be seen if the Supreme Court will dispense with a law that has been on the books for more than a century but Court watchers will pay close attention to questions from the six conservative justices whose views are likely to determine the outcome of what could be a landmark case.

People Protest Against Gun Violence in 2019
Protestors take part in a rally of Moms against gun violence and calling for Federal Background Checks on August 18, 2019 in New York City. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on a New York state gun law on Wednesday. Johannes EISELE / AFP/Getty Images