Today, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Second and Fourteenth Amendments protect the right to carry firearms in public. Ultimately, the Court held that: “New York’s proper-cause requirement violates the Fourteenth Amendment in that it prevents law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms.” The ruling specifically challenged the law in New York, but will also apply to the eight other states that still maintain “may-issue” gun permitting laws, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
In 2008, the Supreme Court recognized the right to bear arms as an individual right in District of Columbia v. Heller. Two years after Heller, in McDonald v. City of Chicago, the court ruled that this right applied against the states, and not just Congress.
The Bruen litigation challenged concealed-carry restrictions under N.Y. Penal Law § 400.00(2)(f) that requires a showing of “proper cause” for the issuance of a carry permit. Lower courts upheld the New York law, but there were ample constitutional concerns over its vague standard, such as showing that you are “of good moral character.” New York wanted to exercise discretion in deciding who needs to carry guns in public, while gun owners rightfully argued that the law flips the constitutional presumption onto gun owners, rather than the government.
The 6-3 majority opinion, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett, and Chief Justice Roberts, rejected the “two-step” approach often employed by lower courts since the McDonald v. Chicago in 2010, saying that the Constitution “demands a test rooted in the Second Amendment’s text, as informed by history.”
The Court expressly held that “when the Second Amendment’s plain text covers an individual’s conduct, the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct.” Quoting the McDonald plurality opinion, the Court held that: “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 Court said that: “We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need. That is not how the First Amendment works when it comes to unpopular speech or the free exercise of religion. It is not how the Sixth Amendment works when it comes to a defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him. And it is not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to public carry for self-defense.”
Prior to today, the SCOTUS had only established a right to have a handgun in one’s home under the Second Amendment. Now, as was hoped for, and widely expected, the Court has now recognized that the right to “bear” arms includes the right to do so outside the home. States such as New York obviously still have numerous gun laws in place which restrict and affect this right. Going forward, Justice Thomas’s opinion means that courts should uphold gun restrictions only if there is a tradition of such regulation in U.S. history.
Thomas correctly notes that in 1791, there was no broad prohibition on the public carry of firearms, with their exclusion only being limited to certain “sensitive places.” Some of the more low-information politicians and commentators out there today argue that only muskets were available in 1791, and that therefore we should now be limited to muskets. Setting aside the obvious flaws in their logic, which would likewise render the First Amendment inapplicable to modern forms of communication and technology, the story of America is interwoven with the invention, use, and perfection of, the American Longrifle. Which by its very definition is not a musket, and which was used respectively in war, acts of self defense, as well as for other uses such as recreation and hunting. One could also point out that cannons were indeed available in 1791, including ships full of them, lawfully available for private ownership and operation.
In response to the opinion, New York Governor Kathy Hochul expressed that she believed the opinion to be “absolutely shocking that they have taken away our right to have reasonable restrictions.” We can see where this is headed in blue states such as New York. What happens when state and local governments refuse to enforce federal constitutional law, such as the Bruen decision? The remedy available to citizens is to sue under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 (i.e., a federal civil rights lawsuit).
But no so fast, since this is where qualified immunity comes in. There’s usually a lag period in between a change in the law and the time in which the federal courts will hold governmental officials (police officers) liable under Section 1983 for civil rights violations. The excuse is generally that police officers can’t be expected to know of every change in the law as it occurs and should be given what is essentially a grace period. Will that happen here if lawsuits are necessary (which I guarantee they will be), and if so, how long will that grace period last? We shall see…. It doesn’t help that federal law enforcement is already announcing their “respectful” disagreement with the opinion.
The U.S. Department of Justice issued a press release today:
“We respectfully disagree with the Court’s conclusion that the Second Amendment forbids New York’s reasonable requirement that individuals seeking to carry a concealed handgun must show that they need to do so for self-defense. The Department of Justice remains committed to saving innocent lives by enforcing and defending federal firearms laws, partnering with state, local and tribal authorities and using all legally available tools to tackle the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our communities.”https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-statement-supreme-court-ruling-new-york-state-rifle-pistol-association-inc
Wait, how does separation of powers work? Also, which Article or Amendment to the Constitution creates and governs the DOJ? I suppose the Framers should have provided an option for an agency of the executive branch to “respectfully disagree” with a “conclusion” of the Supreme Court.
Qualified immunity will not be a defense to cities and county governments who adopt policies and practices that violate federal constitutional rights, now including the Second Amendment as defined by Bruen. This is because political subdivisions cannot assert qualified immunity, as per the U.S. Supreme Court, who created qualified immunity out of thin air in the first place. State governments, on the other hand, have no need to assert federal qualified immunity, because they cannot be sued for money damages in federal courts.
Here is the full opinion in NYSRPA v. Bruen: