New York City wants stricter gun laws, but SCOTUS loosened them

Get the best of Grid in your inbox, every day.

New York wants to curb gun violence, but the Supreme Court just loosened conceal-carry gun laws

On April 12, a lone gunman opened fire in a crowded Brooklyn subway car after using smoke canisters to incapacitate police and passengers. At least 23 people were injured in the attack. A month later, another New York man shot and killed a stranger on another city subway car, completely unprovoked.

New York Mayor Eric Adams promised more police officers at subway stops to mitigate crime, and has pressed Congress for federal help to curb gun violence — expecting crime to surge in the coming summer months the way it has the past two summers.

The recent Supreme Court decision making it easier for states to loosen conceal-carry laws will likely add to his problems. The case, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, challenged a New York state law that requires gun owners to acquire a license to conceal-carry handguns in public. On Thursday, the high court ruled that the law violated the Second Amendment in a 6-3 vote along party lines.

“New York’s proper-cause requirement violates the Fourteenth Amendment by preventing law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms in public for self-defense,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the opinion.

ADVERTISEMENT

New Yorkers should be “very afraid” of the ruling, Adams told reporters at a press conference in May: “In a densely populated community like New York, this ruling could have a major impact on us.”

Since the law has been overturned, gun policy in New York, along with six other states with similar laws, could change to make it easier for citizens to conceal-carry.

Grid spoke with Jake Charles, the executive director of the Center for Firearms Law at Duke University School of Law, about what overturning this law means for gun policy in the city, state and country at large.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does the law being considered in this case operate?

The [current] New York state law requires that a person who wants to get a concealed-carry license to carry their gun outside the home show what the statute calls “proper cause.” It’s not defined in the statute, but courts have fleshed that out to mean that essentially a person must show some need for carrying a gun in public other than just wanting a gun for self-defense purposes. They’ve got to show evidence that justifies their desire to carry a gun in public.

ADVERTISEMENT

Can you elaborate on what qualifies as “proper cause”?

The state courts have interpreted that phrase to mean that a person has to “demonstrate a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community or persons engaged in the same profession.” In other words, if you just go to the licensing official and say, “I’m fearful for my life, or I’m in danger now and I want to carry my gun in public,” that’s probably not going to satisfy the licensing official.

How common is a law like this in other states?

There are about six to eight states total that have this type of law, depending on how you classify them. These are what are known as “good cause” laws. New York has the “standard proper cause,” New Jersey has “justifiable need,” Massachusetts actually has a standard called “good cause,” so they vary on what the actual statutory language is. But the states that have these laws are generally requiring a person to show good reason or good cause to get a carry permit, as opposed to what are often called “shall issue” laws, in which there is no discretion on the part of licensing officials.

Explain the scope of this case. How would overturning the law affect gun policy within New York and across the country?

The court could say that this New York law just gives too much discretion to licensing officials. And that’s the problem. If the problem is too much discretion, then there are ways in which New York could still keep a proper cause requirement and just tighten up the criteria that licensing officials have to follow. So maybe they could list the definition for proper cause, maybe they could list what the official should consider when they’re making the decision of whether or not someone meets the proper cause standard. That’s kind of the narrowest way that the state could lose.

What I think is maybe more likely is the state would lose by the court saying you just can’t have these kind of discretionary policies at all. They can’t say you have to show good cause or proper cause. In which case, that New York law has to be replaced by a “shall issue” law. New York would only be able to list objective criteria, like training requirements and background checks for somebody to get a license, which is almost certainly going to mean that there’ll be more people who are carrying concealed firearms in public.

That kind of ruling also implicates the laws in the six states that have laws similar to New York. Although that’s a minority of states, it’s still about 25 percent of the population, because some of these places, like California, are quite large.

ADVERTISEMENT

What are the legal precedents for this case?

Unlike other constitutional rights like the First Amendment, which has mounds and mounds of precedent, the Second Amendment doesn’t really have much Supreme Court precedent. The court had its first Second Amendment case in the modern age in 1939, and it wasn’t really clear on it then. It wasn’t until 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Supreme Court even said the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to firearms ownership, unconnected to service in a militia. So that was the first time the court ever did it in its 200-year history.

Two years later, the court said that ruling applies to state laws as well, not just federal laws. And those are the only two things the Supreme Court has said about it. It hasn’t had another case since then that it’s decided after argument.

Who stands to benefit the most if this law is overturned?

Those who want to get carry permits in New York will benefit if the law is struck down because it will be much easier for them to get them than under the current system. The state officials, legislators and constituencies that are in favor of stricter gun laws are going to be the ones harmed by this kind of ruling.

The empirical evidence on whether relaxing the laws on carrying guns in public leads to greater gun deaths is contested. There is a debate among criminal justice scholars, economists, public health researchers about what effect this kind of change would have on public safety. Some of the most recent sophisticated empirical analysis has concluded that loosening gun laws in this way leads to about 13 to 15 percent increased violent crime rate 10 years after enactment. That’s one study, but of course, there’s contested empirical literature out there.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Kaila Philo
    Kaila Philo

    Government and Political Institutions Reporter

    Kaila Philo is a reporter at Grid where she focuses on the U.S. government and political institutions.