The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in a case that could reshape the national debate over the right to keep and bear arms.
At issue in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. City of New York is a New York City law that banned licensed handgun owners from possessing, carrying, or transporting their weapons outside of their homes, with one exception: The law let licensed owners transport their handguns, unloaded and locked in a container, to and from an authorized gun range within city limits.
The New York State Rifle and Pistol Association wants the Court to declare such restrictions constitutionally defective. The city "bans its residents from transporting a handgun to any place outside city limits—even if the handgun is unloaded and locked in a container separate from its ammunition," the association told the Court, "and even if the owner seeks to transport it only to a second home for the core constitutionally protected purpose of self-defense, or to a more convenient out-of-city shooting range to hone its safe and effective use."
New York City maintains that such restrictions are fully consistent with both the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent. "The core right protected by the Second Amendment is the right to possess a handgun in the home for purposes of self-defense," the city told the Court. As a result, the regulation "does not substantially burden petitioners' Second Amendment rights."
In an obvious attempt to avoid an adverse Supreme Court ruling, New York City modified its regulation earlier this year and now allows licensed handgun owners to transport their weapons outside of the city under certain circumstances. But that modification failed to persuade the Court to immediately dismiss the case as moot. The constitutionality of the original regulation is still up for judicial review.
The Supreme Court last tackled the meaning of the Second Amendment roughly a decade ago in a pair of closely related cases. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Court invalidated Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban for violating the constitutional right to armed self-defense. In McDonald v. Chicago (2010), the Court enforced that right against the states, striking down a similar handgun ban enacted by the Windy City.
Heller and McDonald each centered on a law that prohibited handgun possession within the home. Neither case explicitly addressed whether or not the Constitution also protects the right to carry guns in public.
At least two members of the current Supreme Court seem to think that the Second Amendment does apply outside of the home. In 2017, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, dissented from the Court's refusal to hear a case that asked whether the Constitution protects the right to carry guns in public. Here's what Thomas and Gorsuch had to say about that:
This Court has already suggested that the Second Amendment protects the right to carry firearms in public in some fashion. As we explained in Heller, to "bear arms" means to "wear, bear, or carry upon the person or in the clothing or in a pocket, for the purpose of being armed and ready for offensive or defensive action in a case of conflict with another person." The most natural reading of this definition encompasses public carry. I find it extremely improbable that the Framers understood the Second Amendment to protect little more than carrying a gun from the bedroom to the kitchen.
If at least three more members of the Court are willing to co-sign that view, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. City of New York could go down in the books as a major victory for Second Amendment advocates.