The Supreme Court this week embraced a vision of the Second Amendment that is profoundly at odds with precedent and the dangers that American communities face today, upending the longstanding practice of letting states decide for themselves how to regulate gun possession in public.
This decision reveals the vast gulf between ideologues on the court and those Americans — ordinary people and their representatives in Congress — who want this country to be safer from guns. As the high court issued its 135-page ruling, the Senate, across the street, approved an 80-page bipartisan bill that tightens restrictions on who can possess and purchase a gun. The House of Representatives passed the bill on Friday, and President Biden signed it Saturday. This breakthrough came after decades of virtually no congressional action on gun safety and was fueled by public outrage over a series of mass shootings, including the recent massacres in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo.
Gun enthusiasts and gun manufacturers have long sought a ruling like the one the court delivered on Thursday: Its decision in the case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, is an assertion that the Second Amendment trumps reasonable efforts to protect public safety. The United States as it exists today — awash in insufficiently regulated, high-powered weapons and afflicted by staggeringly high rates of gun homicide and suicide — is the society that their preferred policies have created. The best that gun control advocates can hope for after the Bruen ruling is what Congress passed: gradual legislative tinkering.
In its 6-to-3 ruling, the supermajority of Republican-appointed justices struck down a century-old New York law that placed strict limits on handguns. But the decision will also affect similar laws in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Hawaii and California. Many of those are states with some of the lowest rates of gun deaths in the country. Extensive research has shown that strict regulation of guns leads to fewer deaths.
Relying on a highly selective reading of history, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his majority opinion that these gun restrictions violate the court’s new interpretation of the Second Amendment. (It was only in 2008, with its decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, that conservatives on the court divined an individual right to bear arms hidden somewhere in the 27 words of the Second Amendment.)
New York’s law requires that a person seeking a concealed carry permit for a handgun must show a good reason for doing so, known as“proper cause,” which covers law enforcement officers and others who can demonstrate a reason to fear for their own safety.
“We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need,” Justice Thomas wrote. “It is not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to public carry for self-defense.”
The majority left open the ability of states to ban guns from certain “sensitive” places such as schools and government buildings, but it cautioned that “there is no historical basis for New York to effectively declare the island of Manhattan a ‘sensitive place.’”
What about, for instance, the subway, the site of a mass shooting in April? The court didn’t say, as Justice Stephen Breyer noted in his dissent.
That leaves an opening for the states to decide which spaces are off limits. Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York plans to call the Legislature back for a special session to address the ruling for just that reason. Lawmakers will consider legislation that could designate New York’s public transit system a sensitive place, along with schools, parks, hospitals and office buildings, and buffer zones around them. The state should also institute extensive training requirements for concealed weapons permits.
Lawmakers in several other states that will likely be affected by the decision said they were working to tweak their laws to meet the court’s new standard for permissible firearms regulation.
The justices bickered openly in their written opinions in the Bruen ruling, with the three liberals on the court pointing to various grim statistics on mass shootings and suicides, while Justice Samuel Alito asked what any of those deaths had to do with handgun regulations.
Their discord reflects a grim truth about gun violence in the United States: It is several distinct and deadly crises happening simultaneously — suicides by firearms, homicides related to domestic violence, gang killings and spectacular mass shootings.
Cities, states and the federal government have approached these overlapping crises in various ways and with varying degrees of success. Broadly speaking, regulating guns saves lives. More guns and less regulation of them result in more deaths. The new legislation aims to tackle several types of gun violence at the same time.
Called the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the law will enhance background checks for potential gun buyers under age 21, which might have helped thwart the mass shooting in Uvalde. It directs millions of dollars to states to put in place so-called red flag laws or other crisis intervention efforts, which will help stop domestic violence-related killings and suicides. It adds “serious dating partners” to the list of domestic abusers prohibited from buying guns, which is now limited to spouses and domestic partners. It also directs millions of dollars to mental health and school safety programs.
The specifics of this bill matter. Of equal importance is the fact that the bipartisan legislation tackles an issue that has stymied Congress for decades. It isn’t quite true, as some supporters of the new bill claim, that there hasn’t been any gun control legislation passed in the past 30 years. Congress passed, and President Trump signed, a minor update to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in 2018. But no legislation equal to the size of the problem has made it to a president’s desk.
With this new law, however limited, lawmakers are at least responding to the fundamental mandate of every elected government to protect its citizens. Given the political paralysis in Congress on so many other issues, any progress on guns is progress worth making.
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