The Supreme Court this week embraced a view of the Second Amendment that deeply violates the precedent and dangers facing American communities today, lifting the long-standing practice of letting states decide for themselves how to regulate gun ownership in public.
This decision reveals the huge 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. When the Supreme Court issued a 135-page ruling, the Senate, across the street, passed an 80-page bipartisan bill that tightens restrictions on who can own and buy a gun. The House of Representatives approved the bill Friday and President Biden signed it on Saturday. This breakthrough came after decades of virtually no congressional action on gun safety and was sparked by public outcry 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 court made Thursday: The decision in the case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, is a claim that the Second Amendment trumps reasonable efforts to protect public safety. . † The United States as it exists today — awash with under-regulated, high-powered weapons and plagued by staggeringly high rates of gun homicide and suicide — is the society that created their preferred policies. The best gun control advocates can hope for after Bruen’s ruling is what Congress passed: gradually tinkering with legislation.
In its 6-to-3 ruling, the vast majority of Republican-appointed judges repealed a century-old New York law that severely restricted handguns. But the decision will also affect similar laws in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Hawaii and California. Many of these are states with some of the lowest rates of firearms deaths in the country. Extensive research has shown that strict regulation of weapons leads to fewer deaths.
Relying on a highly selective reading of history, Judge Clarence Thomas wrote in his majority view that these gun restrictions contradict the court’s new interpretation of the Second Amendment. (It wasn’t until 2008, with his decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, that conservatives established in court an individual right to bear arms hidden somewhere in the 27 words of the Second Amendment.)
New York law requires that a person seeking a concealed carry permit for a gun must show a good reason, also known as “proper reason,” which pertains to law enforcement officers and others who can demonstrate that they are afraid of their own safety.
“We know of no other constitutional right that a person may exercise only after demonstrating a special need to government officials,” Judge Thomas wrote. “It’s not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to public transportation for self-defense.”
The majority left open the option for states to ban guns in certain “sensitive” places such as schools and government buildings, but warned that “there is no historical basis for New York to effectively declare Manhattan Island a “sensitive place.” †
For example, what about the subway, the site of a mass shooting in April? The court said no, as Judge Stephen Breyer noted in his dissenting opinion.
That leaves a gap for states to decide which areas are off-limits. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul plans to recall the legislature to a special session to address the ruling. Lawmakers will consider legislation that could label New York’s public transportation system a sensitive place, along with schools, parks, hospitals and office buildings, and buffer zones around it. The state should also set extensive training requirements for concealed weapons licenses.
Lawmakers in several other states likely to be affected by the decision said they were in the process of amending their laws to meet the court’s new standard of permitted firearms regulation.
The judges openly bickered in their written opinions in the Bruen ruling, with the three liberals pointing in court to several grim statistics about mass shootings and suicides, while Judge Samuel Alito asked what one of those deaths had to do with small arms regulations. .
Their disagreement reflects a stark truth about gun violence in the United States: There are several distinct and deadly crises occurring simultaneously: gun suicides, domestic violence-related homicides, gang homicides, and spectacular mass shootings.
Cities, states and the federal government have addressed these overlapping crises in different ways and with varying degrees of success. In general, regulating guns saves lives. More guns and less regulation of them results in more deaths. The new legislation aims to tackle different forms of gun violence simultaneously.
The law, dubbed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, will improve background checks for would-be gun buyers under the age of 21, which may have helped thwart the mass shooting in Uvalde. It sends millions of dollars to states to enact so-called red flag laws or other crisis intervention efforts that will help end domestic violence-related homicides and suicides. It adds “serious dating partners” to the list of domestic abusers who are not allowed to buy guns, which is now limited to spouses and domestic partners. It also gives millions of dollars to mental health and school safety programs.
The details of this bill are important. Of equal importance is the fact that the bipartisan legislation addresses an issue that has hampered Congress for decades. It is not entirely true, as some proponents of the new bill claim, that there has been none each gun control legislation passed in the past 30 years. Congress passed a minor update to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in 2018 and signed on with President Trump. But no legislation as big as the problem has made it to the president’s desk.
With this new law, however limited, lawmakers are at least responding to the fundamental mandate of any elected government to protect its citizens. Given the political paralysis in Congress on so many other issues, any progress on weapons is progress worth making.