WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court takes up the most important gun rights case in more than a decade Wednesday, one that both sides hope will clarify how much protection the Second Amendment provides for carrying a gun outside the home.
It’s an issue the court repeatedly ducked after issuing a landmark 5-4 ruling in 2008 that said the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to keep a handgun at home for self defense. A decision in the current case, which comes from New York, could affect the ability of state and local governments to impose a wide range of firearms regulations.
New York prohibits carrying a handgun openly but allows residents to get a license to carry a concealed firearm if they can demonstrate a requirement that goes beyond a general desire for self protection. Gun owners in the state sued, saying that makes it virtually impossible for ordinary citizens to obtain the license.
Among the law’s challengers are the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, an affiliate of the National Rifle Association, and two men who applied for general permits to carry a gun for protection but were turned down. A federal judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected their challenge.
Under state law, anyone seeking a license to carry a concealed weapon must demonstrate “a special need for self protection distinguishable from that of the general community or of persons engaged in the same profession.”
That violates the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right “to keep and bear arms,” said Paul Clement, a lawyer for the challengers. He told the Supreme Court in his written filings that while the right to keep arms may have its greatest application at home, “the right to carry arms extends outside the home.”
The two sides differ strongly on the kinds of limitations that have historically been allowed, because the Supreme Court’s landmark 2008 ruling said the Second Amendment does not prohibit long-standing, traditionally accepted gun regulations of firearms.
Clement said the nation’s founders understood that people had a right to carry common arms for self defense. “Simply put, the state cannot reserve for a happy few a right that the Constitution protects for all ‘the people.'”
But New York Attorney General Letitia James, who announced on Friday that she’s running for governor, said in her written filings that local governments have long restricted carrying guns in public. The state has a compelling interest in reducing violent crime and gun violence, and the law at issue “furthers those urgent goals.”
A ruling for the challengers, she said, “would jeopardize the firearms restrictions that all states and the federal government have adopted to protect the public in sensitive places where people congregate — settings like courthouses, airports, subways, sports arenas, bars, gaming facilities, houses of worship, and schools.”
All states allow carrying a concealed gun in public, though 34 require a state-issued permit. New York and seven other states provide local officials with more discretion to deny permit requests, and they are most likely to be affected by the outcome of this case.
Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent who covers the Justice Department and the Supreme Court, based in Washington.