WASHINGTON — Six months after the Supreme Court struck down a New York law that placed strict limits on carrying guns outside the home, the court refused to block a new law enacted in response to that ruling.
The court’s brief, unsigned order gave no reasons, which is typical when the justices act on emergency applications. Challenges to the new law remain pending before the federal appeals court in New York.
In a statement, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the law “presents novel and serious questions.” But he added that the appeals court should address those questions first, so long as it does so promptly.
The law, enacted in July, requires people seeking gun licenses to show that they have “good moral character” and bans guns in many public locations. In addition, the law bans guns on private property unless the owner consents to their presence.
Six New Yorkers, backed by a gun rights group, challenged the new law in the case brought to the Supreme Court, saying it violated the Second Amendment and flouted the court’s decision in June, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. The group that filed the suit, Gun Owners of America, says it is the “‘no compromise’ gun lobby.”
In the Bruen decision, a six-justice majority struck down a law that required people seeking a license to carry a handgun in public to demonstrate that they had a “proper cause.” The Second Amendment, Justice Thomas wrote for the majority, protects “an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.” The gun law, he wrote, gave local officials too much discretion and placed an intolerable burden on Second Amendment rights.
Justice Thomas wrote that states remained free to ban guns in sensitive places, giving a few examples: schools, government buildings, legislative assemblies, polling places and courthouses. But he cautioned that “expanding the category of ‘sensitive places’ simply to all places of public congregation that are not isolated from law enforcement defines the category of ‘sensitive places’ far too broadly.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., wrote that laws that used objective criteria in deciding who is entitled to carry guns in public remained presumptively constitutional. States were generally free to require, he wrote, “fingerprinting, a background check, a mental health records check, and training in firearms handling and in laws regarding the use of force.”
In the aftermath of the decision, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York convened an extraordinary legislative session to seek an alternative law, vowing to combat a “gun violence crisis.”
“They may think they can change our lives with the stroke of a pen, but we have pens, too,” she told reporters during the July session. State lawmakers ultimately passed a new law that they said protected public safety while complying with the Supreme Court’s decision.
But in November, Judge Glenn T. Suddaby of the Federal District Court in Syracuse, N.Y., blocked many aspects of the new law in a 184-page opinion that drew on the methodology endorsed by the Supreme Court in the Bruen decision.
Judge Suddaby blocked the law’s “good moral character” requirement along with some disclosures called for by the law, including the identification of family members and social media accounts. He also halted the law’s restrictions on carrying guns in, among other places, houses of worship, public parks, zoos, buses, theaters and establishments serving alcohol.
The judge also blocked the law’s prohibition on carrying firearms onto private property without the owner’s consent.
A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit put Judge Suddaby’s ruling on hold while an appeal moved forward. The plaintiffs then asked the Supreme Court to step in.
The new law’s “good moral character” requirement, the plaintiffs wrote, “is no less subject to the unbridled discretion of licensing officials and makes the licensing process even more difficult than before.” And its ban of guns in sensitive places, they wrote, encompasses almost the entire state.
The new law, they wrote, “was designed not as a public safety measure, but rather a political statement demonstrating New York’s contempt for this court’s Bruen decision.”
In response, lawyers for the state urged the Supreme Court to leave the new law in place while legal challenges moved forward.
The state’s brief said the plaintiffs had not suffered the sort of injury that gave them standing to sue, noting that five of them already had licenses to carry guns and that the sixth had not attempted to secure a license.
The brief added that the “good moral character” requirement had been an independent feature of New York’s licensing law for more than a century and was needed to ensure that licenses were given to law-abiding citizens who would not endanger themselves or others. The “proper cause” requirement struck down in Bruen, the filing said, had a different purpose, that of requiring a special justification for carrying a gun.
The state’s lawyers said in the brief that the plaintiffs had overstated the sweep of the new law’s restrictions on carrying guns in sensitive places. The law’s limits, the lawyers said, tracked “longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms in places like fairs, markets, election sites, places of worship, courts, schools, places of public assembly and so forth.”