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Supreme Court To Take Up 1st Major Gun Rights Case In More Than A Decade

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal to expand gun rights in the United States in a New York case over the right to carry a firearm in public for self-defense.
J. Scott Applewhite
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal to expand gun rights in the United States in a New York case over the right to carry a firearm in public for self-defense.

Updated April 26, 2021 at 5:03 PM ET

In a major foray into gun rights, the Supreme Court on Monday agreed to review a case testing how far states may go in regulating whether an individual may carry a gun outside the home.

More than a decade ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment right to bear arms guarantees the right to own a gun in one's home for self-defense. But since then, despite repeated pleas from gun rights' advocates, the court majority has declined to make any further decision about how far states may go in regulating gun rights.

Now, however, the court, in NY State Rifle & Pistol Assoc. v. Corlett, will review a New York law, upheld by the lower courts, that requires individuals to get a license to carry a concealed gun outside the home. The case will likely be argued in the fall.

The court's decision follows mass shootings in recent weeks in Indiana, Georgia, Colorado and California, and a surge in firearms sales, particularly to first-time gun buyers.

While most states have virtually unrestricted rules for concealed carriage of guns outside the home, New York and seven other states — California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island — have significant restrictions. In New York, for instance, licenses are restricted to those going hunting or to target practice, and those who can demonstrate a need for self-protection, such as a bank messenger carrying money, or a store owner who wants to keep a gun in his store.

Many of these states have large populations. New York, New Jersey and California alone have nearly 68 million people, or more than one-fifth of the U.S. population. Research indicates that if concealed-carry permits were easy to get, roughly 10% of adults in those states would likely be carrying guns, according to UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. In Los Angeles County, which has 10 million people, he says, estimates are that some 500,000 to 800,000 people would get concealed-carry permits if restrictions were largely eliminated, compared with fewer than 500 now.

In 2008 and 2010, the Supreme Court overturned handgun bans in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, respectively, in a pair of landmark cases that redefined gun rights in the United States.

In those cases, a sharply divided court ruled that the Second Amendment right to bear arms is an individual right, not one associated with the militia, as the court had previously implied. Those decisions marked a huge victory for the National Rifle Association and other gun rights organizations.

However, in the past decade, the court has largely avoided gun rights cases. The latest case out of New York state would be the first major firearms ruling since Justice Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation last year, solidifying a 6-3 conservative majority on the court.

In April 2020, the court sent a challenge to a New York City ban on carrying handguns outside the home back to the lower court without ruling, concluding the case was moot because the city had already changed the law.

But in a concurring opinion at that time, Justice Brett Kavanaugh recommended that the justices take up another Second Amendment case soon, suggesting the lower courts might not be properly applying the Supreme Court's earlier gun rights rulings.

Kavanaugh, during his tenure on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, dissented from that court's gun rights ruling, which upheld a ban on military-style, semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Barrett, during her tenure as a federal appeals court judge, also adopted a narrow view of what regulations are permissible.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.