Over a decade after it ruled that the Second Amendment protects the right to have a handgun in the home for self-defense, the Supreme Court agreed on Monday to decide whether the Constitution also protects the right to carry a gun outside the home. The justices’ announcement that they will take up a challenge to a New York law that requires anyone who wants to carry a gun in the state to show a good reason for doing so sets the stage for a major ruling on gun rights in the court’s 2021-22 term.
The law at issue in the case, New York Rifle & Pistol Association v. Corlett, is similar to gun-control measures in other states. To receive an unrestricted license to carry a concealed firearm outside the home, a person must show “proper cause” – meaning a special need for self-protection. Two men challenged the law after New York rejected their concealed-carry applications, and they are backed by a gun-rights advocacy group. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld the law, prompting the challengers to appeal to the Supreme Court.
After considering the case at three conferences, the justices agreed to weigh in. They instructed the parties to brief a slightly narrower question than the challengers had asked them to decide, limiting the issue to whether the state’s denial of the individuals’ applications to carry a gun outside the home for self-defense violated the Second Amendment. But the case nonetheless has the potential to be a landmark ruling. It will be argued in the fall, with a decision expected sometime next year.
The announcement came just one day short of one year after the court’s ruling in a different challenge brought by the same gun-rights group. That case involved New York City’s ban on the transport of licensed handguns outside the city. Because the city had repealed the ban before the case reached the Supreme Court, a majority of the court agreed with the city that the challengers’ original claims were moot – that is, no longer a live controversy. In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh agreed that the case should return to the lower court, but he also indicated that he shared the concern – expressed by Justice Samuel Alito in his dissenting opinion – that the lower courts “may not be properly applying” the Supreme Court’s most recent gun-rights rulings, District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago. Therefore, Kavanaugh urged the court to “address that issue soon, perhaps in one of the several Second Amendment cases with petitions for certiorari” then pending before the justices, several of which involved the right to carry a handgun outside the home for self-defense.
Shortly after issuing that decision, the court distributed for consideration at its May 1, 2020, conference 10 gun rights cases that they had put on hold while the New York City case was pending. The justices considered those cases at six consecutive conferences before finally denying review in all 10 of them in June.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court’s decision not to take up at least one of the 10 cases. In an opinion that was joined in part by Kavanaugh, Thomas argued that the Supreme Court would likely grant review if a law required someone to show a good reason before exercising her right to free speech or to seek an abortion. However, Thomas continued, the Supreme Court had opted to “simply look the other way” when “faced with a petition challenging just such a restriction on citizens’ Second Amendment rights.”
There is no way to know why the justices turned down the petitions for review last year. Commentators speculated that some conservative justices may not have been confident that Chief Justice John Roberts would provide a fifth vote to expand gun rights. However, since then Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was replaced by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, whose vote as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit suggests that she might take a broader approach to the Second Amendment.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.