The US Supreme Court has recognised a constitutional right for individuals to carry firearms in public for self-defence, striking down a New York state law in a decision that comes amid a fraught gun-control debate after a number of deadly mass shootings.
The 6-3 decision on Thursday held that New York’s requirement for an individual to show “proper cause” to carry a concealed gun in public was unconstitutional.
The majority opinion, authored by justice Clarence Thomas and joined by the court’s other five conservative justices, said New York’s licensing regime violated the 2nd and 14th Amendments “in that it prevents law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defence needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms”.
The court’s three liberal justices dissented in an opinion written by Stephen Breyer. They argued that New York had “adopted a reasonable licensing law to regulate the concealed carriage of handguns in order to keep [its people] safe”, and warned of the majority opinion’s “potentially deadly consequences”.
The decision will have consequences for one of the most socially and politically divisive issues in the US — gun control — in a country that has systematically failed to rein in gun violence.
The ruling establishes a precedent that could make limits on gun licensing in other states more vulnerable to legal challenges, experts said. The majority opinion listed the District of Columbia, California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey as having similar licensing regimes to New York.
Jeffrey Fagan, professor at Columbia Law School, described the majority opinion as based on a “very far-reaching” and “not really sustainable” interpretation of the 14th Amendment, which was enacted after the Civil War to protect the rights of newly emancipated slaves.
The “balance of power” in regulating who can carry firearms “now shifts from the states to the federal government and to the federal courts”, he said, adding that state courts and legislatures “will be somewhat cautious about . . . creating statutes that restrict carrying” for fear of being overturned.
The ruling comes after several fatal mass shootings including last month’s attack at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in which an 18-year-old man gunned down two teachers and 19 pupils. In another mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, an 18-year-old white supremacist was accused of using an assault rifle to kill 10 black shoppers at a local supermarket.
Kathy Hochul, the Democratic governor of New York, called the ruling “absolutely shocking” and vowed that the state would “fight back”.
Eric Adams, the city’s mayor and former police captain, has blamed the widespread availability of guns for the rise in violent crime, said in a statement: “Put simply, this Supreme Court ruling will put New Yorkers at further risk of gun violence.”
New York City and state officials have for months been bracing for Thursday’s ruling, trying to prepare alternative measures that would maintain restrictions on firearms while still passing legal scrutiny. Yet without knowing the specifics of the court’s ruling, this has proved challenging.
“There is no place in the nation this decision effects as much as New York City,” Adams said at a press conference, adding it would require law enforcement to “shift to a totally different mindset.”
In her remarks, Hochul suggested the state might introduce restrictions on sensitive locations where concealed firearms could not be carried, require training, or give businesses and property owners more authority to ban guns on their premises. “We have a lot of ideas,” she said.
A bipartisan group of US senators earlier this month reached a tentative deal on gun-control measures which, though modest, would amount to the most significant restrictions in decades if enacted.
US president Joe Biden said in a statement he was “deeply disappointed” by a ruling that “contradicts both common sense and the constitution, and should deeply trouble us all”. He also urged states “to continue to enact and enforce commonsense laws to make their citizens and communities safer from gun violence”.
Some Democrats were more scathing about the decision. Dick Durbin, the Democratic lawmaker from Illinois who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, said it was an “invitation for more gun deaths and chaos in America’s neighbourhoods”.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington