The Supreme Court’s gun ruling sets a disturbing new precedent

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The Supreme Court’s gun ruling sets a disturbing new precedent: Ignoring scientific evidence

Public health experts decried a Supreme Court decision on Thursday that eliminated states’ ability to draw on empirical evidence in regulating firearms, calling the ruling an assault on rational laws.

In the 6-3 decision, made on partisan lines, the court struck down a New York law that heavily restricted carrying guns outside the home in that state and five others.

“The exercise of other constitutional rights does not require individuals to demonstrate to government officers some special need,” said the majority decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas. “The Second Amendment right to carry arms in public for self-defense is no different.”

Alarming scientists, the decision dismissed the legal reasoning, known as “any means-end test,” that lower courts had relied on to weigh firearms restrictions using statistics and scientific findings following a 2008 court decision removing restrictions on keeping guns in homes. The new ruling calls into question laws in many states preventing people from carrying concealed weapons in public because they now cannot be defended using data on crimes, deaths and injuries from firearms, according to observers.

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The move eliminates the second half of a two-part test that states used to defend gun control laws. It will also make it harder to put new ones in place because they will have to instead rest on historical precedents that the decisions already called sparse.

“It’s going to create a ‘Wild, Wild West’, out there,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. More than 45,000 people a year die of gun injuries — most by suicide, followed by homicide. The rates of both have been rising in the last decade. “This particular court’s majority does not follow evidence. It follows its own ideology, and we can see that’s dangerous,” said Benjamin.

The Supreme Court decision did cite the threat of robbery as a key reason for people to freely carry a gun outside the home, but a strong body of research suggests loosening concealed-carry laws leads to an overall increase in violent crime, said Mitchell Doucette, an injury public health researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies the effects of gun laws. “You also see increases in homicides committed in the workplace.”

It’s that finding and ones like it that the court ruling will prohibit judges from taking into account during any future challenges to gun laws.

“As a firearms researcher, I disagree with the court’s decision,” said Emma Fridel, an assistant professor of criminology at Florida State University, whose research found that firearm homicide rates increased by 10.8 percent in states without the stricter concealed-carry laws like New York’s now-overruled one. “Modern problems require modern solutions based on recent empirical evidence,” Fridel said.

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Statistics and studies figure heavily in a three-judge dissent from the ruling written by Justice Stephen Breyer, criticizing the majority’s reliance solely on readings of history in its ruling. He argued that regulation instead “requires consideration of facts, statistics, expert opinions, predictive judgments, relevant values and a host of other circumstances,” citing scientific findings of dangers of road rage, domestic violence and police killings in states with more guns.

“I fear that the Court’s interpretation ignores these significant dangers and leaves States without the ability to address them,” wrote Breyer, who is retiring at the end of the court’s current term.

The Supreme Court’s decision came as the Senate passed the first gun regulation bill in decades, supporting “red flag” laws that would keep people with a history of threats to themselves and others from buying a gun.

Ironically, that is a policy supported by research, which helps explain why it made it into the law, said Mark Rosenberg, former director of the Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the time when firearms research was first blocked in 1996 and only removed in 2019.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is very troubling and a huge step backward,” said Rosenberg. “Without science we are never going to find solutions that both save people’s lives and protect the rights of gun owners.”

This article has been updated. Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing.

  • Dan Vergano
    Dan Vergano

    Science Reporter

    Dan Vergano is a science reporter for Grid.