New York's 'special need' gun license demand violates Constitution

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday reaffirmed Americans’ right to self-defense by ruling that New York’s requirement that a person show a “special need” for a permit to carry a gun in public is unconstitutional.

The 6-3 decision, where the majority opinion was written by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the court holds “that a state may not enforce a law, like New York’s Sullivan Law, that effectively prevents its law-abiding residents from carrying a gun” for self-defense.

“That is all we decide. Our holding decides 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.”

The decision struck New York state’s demand that to obtain a license to carry a gun in public, a person must show a “special need.”

New York and a handful of other states imposed that extraordinary demand, while most states have regulations with simply require a person to meet a specified set of standards, such as no criminal record, to obtain a permit.

The decision builds on the court’s Heller and McDonald decisions, from recent years, in which the justices ruled that the Second Amendment protects a right for individuals to be armed, and that applies to states, too.

The fight was over a 108-year-old handgun-licensing requirement in New York, but now will affect gun-control laws across the nation.

An analysis of the fight pointed out that both sides agreed the Constitution protects a right to carry a handgun outside of the home for self-defense, but they had very different views on whether and when the government can place restrictions on that right.

The last major rulings from the court on the Second Amendment came in 2008, when it decided District of Columbia v. Heller and in 2010 with McDonald v. City of Chicago. The first case held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep a gun in the home for self-defense and the later ruling said states must respect that right, too.

The core of the dispute was that New York, like several other states, required a person to show “proper cause” when requesting a permit to carry concealed.

The problem with that is it is a subjective standard and leaves to authorities the decisions on requests.

A gun-rights organization was joined by Robert Nash and Brandon Koch in challenging the present standard.

They argued New York’s law was upside down in that the Second Amendment “makes the right to carry arms for self-defense the rule, not the exception.”

They pointed out that neither the American colonies, nor the early states, barred residents from carrying weapons in some cases required them to do exactly that.

The state simply says carrying a gun is a right – but it can limit that right however it wants.

The liberal minority of Stephen Breyer, Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan spent pages reciting statistics about mass shootings, the use of guns in suicides, and more, a point that Thomas openly wondered about.

“It is hard to see what legitimate purpose can possibly be served by most of the dissent’s lengthy introductory section. … Why, for example, does the dissent think it is relevant to recount the mass shootings that have occurred in recent years? … Does the dissent think that laws like New York’s prevent or deter such atrocities? Will a person bent on carrying out a mass shooting be stopped if he knows that it is illegal to carry a handgun outside the home? And how does the dissent account for the fact that one of the mass shootings near the top of its list took place in Buffalo? The New York law at issue in this case obviously did not stop that perpetrator. What is the relevance of statistics about the use of guns to commit suicide? Does the dissent think that a lot of people who possess guns in their homes will be stopped or deterred from shooting themselves if they cannot lawfully take them outside? The dissent cites statistics about the use of guns in domestic disputes … but it does not explain why these statistics are relevant to the question presented.”

Thomas also cited the proven benefits of the public having the ability to carry a weapon:

“One night in 1987, Austin Fulk, a gay man from Arkansas, ‘was chatting with another man in a parking lot when four gay bashers charged them with baseball bats and tire irons. Fulk’s companion drew his pistol from under the seat of his car, brandished it at the attackers, and fired a single shot over their heads, causing them to flee and saving the would-be victims from serious harm.'”

And, Thomas noted, “On July 7, 2020, a woman was brutally assaulted in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant in Jefferson City, Tennessee. Her assailant slammed her to the ground and began to drag her around while strangling her. She was saved when a bystander who was lawfully carrying a pistol pointed his gun at the assailant, who then stopped the assault and the assailant was arrested.”

The decision noted it does not affect the rules in 43 states where they have “shall-issue” standards, meaning the state sets the requirements for handgun licenses and then issues them to those who meet the standards.

“The court’s decision addresses only the unusual discretionary licensing regimes, known as ‘may-issue’ regimes, that are employed by six states including New York.”

New York’s system was a problem because it allowed officials complete discretion in whether to issue the licenses. That state, and others similarly situated, now must based their decisions on “objective licensing requirements.”

The opinion’s syllabus explained, “The constitutional right to bear arms in public for self-defense is not ‘a second-class right, subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees.’ The exercise of other constitutional rights does not require individuals to demonstrate to government officers some special need.

“The Second Amendment right to carry arms in public for self-defense is no different. New York’s proper-cause requirement violates the Fourteenth Amendment by preventing law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their right keep and bear arms in public.”

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