The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday threw out a New York gun law that gave government officials broad discretion in limiting who could carry a loaded gun in public places — a clear warning shot to California and several other states that severely restrict concealed carry permits.
Gun rights advocates hailed the ruling as a victory, while advocates for stricter gun laws and California’s Democratic leaders blasted the decision as a setback in efforts to tamp down gun violence after deadly mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas and Buffalo, New York last month.
The ruling comes just as Congress is poised to pass the most significant bipartisan gun legislation in decades that would include funding for enacting and enforcing “red flag” laws like California’s.
“More people will be harmed by guns as a result of today’s decision,” Eric Tirschwell, Chief Litigation Counsel for Everytown Law, which supports stricter gun laws, said of the decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association vs. Kevin P. Bruen, New York State Police Superintendent.
Brandon Combs, president of the Sacramento-based Firearms Policy Coalition, called it “a major win for the people and for the liberties our Constitution was designed to protect” that will have implications beyond just the question of carrying guns in public.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is urging a raft of new gun laws in a state that already has the most restrictive firearm regulations in the country, called the ruling “shameful” on Twitter and said it infringes “on the rights of states to protect our citizens from being gunned down in our streets, schools, and churches.”
Still, even critics said the ruling won’t just let anyone go about with a loaded gun anywhere in public.
In California, carrying a loaded firearm openly or concealed in most public places is generally prohibited unless a person has been issued a license from local law enforcement. Those permits are issued by a sheriff or chief of police after a successful background check, completion of a firearms safety course and proof of residency, employment, or business in that city or county.
“States still have the right to limit concealed carry permits to those who may safely possess firearms,” said state Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement. He said the state will quickly seek new legislation clarifying where concealed firearms are forbidden, and the qualifications required for obtaining a permit.
Donovan McWhorter, 33, of Alameda greeted the court’s decision with open arms as he picked up his second firearm — a Smith & Wesson SD40 handgun. He works a job that begins at midnight in San Francisco, and he fears that many people are illegally carrying guns.
“The feeling of being a gun owner, it’s different,” McWhorter said. “You have the confidence to talk to anybody.”
But Hamza Hauter, 26, of Castro Valley called the decision “ridiculous.” Standing outside a Safeway store in Castro Valley, he feared mundane tasks like shopping for groceries could now become more dangerous.
“It’s just going to be a scary situation,” Hauter said. “You don’t know if the person has bad intentions.”
The Supreme Court case arose after two New York men challenged their state’s gun licensing regime, which requires owners to demonstrate that “proper cause exists” for them to carry a loaded gun in public. State officials denied their request after deeming their desire to carry their guns for self defense insufficient.
The Rifle and Pistol Association argued on the men’s behalf that law-abiding citizens should be be allowed to arm themselves outside the home without having to prove a need to do so.
In the majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, said the state law oversteps the Constitution’s Second Amendment right to bear arms.
The court had held in a 2008 case over a Washington, D.C. handgun ban that people have an individual right to arm themselves for traditional purposes such as self defense at home, but left unanswered how much states could restrict those rights outside a private home or business.
In Thursday’s ruling, the court held that “to confine the right to ‘bear’ arms to the home would nullify half of the Second Amendment’s operative protections.” The court said citizens aren’t required to show a special need for their other constitutional rights, and that New York’s proper-cause requirement prevents “law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms in public.”
But the court did note the longstanding lawfulness of forbidding firearms in sensitive public places like schools and government buildings, legislative assemblies, polling places, and courthouses. Though the justices declined to “comprehensively define” what other places might be included, they said New York ran afoul by defining them “far too broadly,” in a way that “would in effect exempt cities from the Second Amendment.”
“I don’t think there’s any concern on our end that somehow schools are back in play where a state or local government can’t prohibit guns,” Tirschwell said.
UC-Los Angeles law professor Eugene Volokh, an expert in constitutional law and gun regulations, said the ruling effectively aligns California law with those of most other states that say authorities “shall issue” permits to carry weapons in public to citizens not otherwise legally prohibited. Sheriffs in many California counties already effectively issue permits the same way.
Gun Rights advocates said other language in the ruling on how courts should evaluate Second Amendment cases will bolster their challenges of other California gun laws.
“All of the lawsuits already in the pipeline regarding magazines, assault weapons, waiting periods, ammunition laws — all those laws will be challenged and I’m very confident they will not meet that standard and will be overturned,” said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California.
Still, nothing is going to change overnight. The New York case will be sent back to lower courts. And any change in California law likely will come after the state’s laws are challenged in court.
“Nothing changes,” Paredes said, “without a lawsuit.”
Staff Writer Robert Salonga contributed.