As nation reels from Uvalde massacre, Supreme Court is expected to expand gun rights

·4-min read

As the nation reels from one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, the Supreme Court is poised to issue a ruling that would likely increase the number of guns in public places.

Justices heard arguments last fall in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, and the court is scheduled to issue an opinion within the next few weeks.

The case was brought by two New York men who challenged a state law that requires them to have a “proper cause,” or special need, in order to carry a firearm outside their home.

Questions and comments by justices during those oral arguments revealed that the court’s six conservatives are all skeptical of the law.

The Rev. Patrick Mahoney holds a sign
The Rev. Patrick Mahoney at a rally outside the Supreme Court. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

The question, legal observers said, was not whether the court would knock down the New York law, a ruling that would require the support of five justices. Rather, what remained unknown was whether the court would still grant states the power to limit firearms in specially designated public spaces, and how broadly states could use that power.

If the New York’s law is struck down, it would have a ripple effect for other states with similar restrictions, such as California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The plaintiffs in the New York case argue that the state law restricts their right to “bear arms.”

But supporters of the law have said that public safety, especially in densely populated urban areas, is also a mandate of the state government. They argue that states — rather than the Supreme Court — are better equipped to craft policies that balance gun rights with public safety concerns.

“The Anglo-American legal tradition has for centuries included limits on the public carrying of weapons, a tradition imported immediately into the colonies, and which existed to protect the public from harm,” wrote Jeremy Feigenbaum, the state solicitor of New Jersey, last year.

Supporters and opponents of strong gun control laws rally outside the US Supreme Court
Supporters and opponents of gun control laws rally outside the Supreme Court, Nov. 3, 2021. (Sue Dorfman/Zuma Press Wire)

“The simple truth is that what works in a rural region in Alaska may not work in an urban center in New York or New Jersey, and state legislatures are far better situated to sift through local safety evidence and hear from local law enforcement than a single national court,” Feigenbaum argued.

But the court’s conservative justices appear to believe that the right to “bear arms” should not be burdened by a requirement to have a special reason to carry one outside the home.

“Why isn’t it good enough to say, ‘I live in a violent area, and I want to be able to defend myself’?” Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked during arguments last fall.

Barbara Underwood, New York’s solicitor general, replied that “what happens in these license hearings is that a question is asked: ‘What exactly do you mean?’”

“You could say, ‘I live in a violent area,’ and that could be all of New York City, or it could be your particular neighborhood,” Underwood said. “The closer it gets to your particular neighborhood, the better your claim is.”

But the lead attorney for the plaintiffs argued last fall that the court should shift the state’s power away from restricting the ability to carry firearms outside the home and toward limiting the exercise of that right in certain spaces such as schools, government buildings, sports arenas and major public events.

New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood
New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood. (Hans Pennick/AP)

The real debate, then, would shift to how broadly states could restrict the possession of firearms in public.

“It is the difference between regulating constitutionally protected activity and attempting to convert a fundamental constitutional right into a privilege that can only be enjoyed by those who can demonstrate to the satisfaction of a government official that they have an atypical need for the exercise of that right,” the plaintiffs' attorney Paul Clement told the justices.

The court’s majority appeared to agree with Clement.

But after 19 children and two adults were massacred inside an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, a ruling that expands gun rights would inflame many in the country and could further polarize many Americans’ views of the court.

A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 47% of Americans believe gun controls should be more strict, while 44% believe they should either be less strict or the same.