In a development that gun control advocates have been fearing, the Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a case that could establish a Second Amendment right to carry a handgun in public, endangering laws in California and elsewhere that allow local and state governments to limit gun-carrying permits to people who establish a specific self-defense concern.
It is the first time in more than a decade that the court has agreed to consider a case arising from disputes over fundamental interpretations of the Second Amendment, a delay that court observers interpreted as a signal that the four most conservative members did not have a fifth vote to expand Second Amendment rights.
Then liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and was replaced by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who wrote a dissenting opinion while on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that advocated an expansive view of Second Amendment rights. Gun control advocates have been worried ever since that Barrett, a protégé of the late conservative justice Antonin Scalia, could become a fifth vote on the nine-member court for loosening gun control laws.
The case the court accepted Monday (New York State Rifle &Pistol Association Inc. v. Corlett) follows the court’s controversial 2008 Heller decision, which for the first time enunciated a right to own a firearm in the home for self-protection, breaking with historic perceptions that the right was conferred only to members of state militias. From our perspective, it was an errant reading of the Constitution, but unfortunately the nation is stuck with it.
But even the Heller ruling, written by Scalia, recognized that the Second Amendment did not confer an absolute right to carry any firearm anywhere at any time, and that government has a legitimate interest in regulating firearms.
“Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places, such as schools and government buildings,” he wrote. The ruling also left intact prohibitions on possession of unusual firearms such as machine guns, and bans on carrying concealed weapons.
Gun rights advocates have been pressing for years to get the courts to expand Heller to include carrying firearms in public, often citing little more than a generalized fear of being attacked and needing a firearm for protection. That argument comports with the National Rifle Association-backed notion that a more heavily armed nation is a safer nation, an assertion undercut by reality. The U.S. is awash in firearms, and also has higher rates of gun deaths than other developed nations.
Whether the court will match the legal arguments against the incredible harm already caused by people carrying guns is the big question. There is a balance of interests at play. Even if the Second Amendment does confer an individual right to own a gun in the home, the court should not endanger public safety by bringing more guns out onto the streets.