Washington — The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to take up a legal dispute over a New York gun law that could expand the scope of the Second Amendment, leaving the high court, now with an expanded conservative majority, poised to address the politically charged issue of gun rights.
The Supreme Court's decision to consider the legal battle comes in the wake of a spate of mass shootings in recent weeks that have reignited the debate over gun control and spurred calls for Congress to pass legislation restricting access to firearms. Oral arguments will take place in the fall, in the court's next term.
The high court has shied away from jumping into the contentious issue of gun rights since issuing its last major rulings in 2008 and 2010, when it found the Second Amendment protects the right to have firearms in the home for self-defense. The justices in June turned away a bevy of challenges to state laws placing restrictions on guns and, after hearing oral arguments, dismissed a dispute over a New York City rule restricting where licensed handgun owners could transport locked and unloaded firearms because the measure was changed.
The reluctance of the Supreme Court to wade into such a politically fraught issue has rankled its conservative members. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in 2018 that his fellow justices have made the Second Amendment a "disfavored right" and the Supreme Court's "constitutional orphan," and Justice Brett Kavanaugh said last year the court should address the issue of the scope of the Second Amendment "soon."
But gun rights backers believe the stage is set for the Supreme Court to clarify the scope of the Second Amendment, as it now has a 6-3 conservative majority with the addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett in October.
The case to be heard by the justices involves a New York regime that prohibits people from carrying concealed handguns outside the home without a license. To obtain a license to carry in public, an applicant must demonstrate a "proper cause" and "special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community or of persons engaged in the same profession."
Joined by the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, two New York residents challenged the state's framework for obtaining a license to carry a handgun in public after their applications to do so were rejected on the grounds they failed to show "proper cause" to carry a firearm in public for self-defense.
The group argued the law was an unconstitutional infringement of the Second Amendment, but both the federal district court and the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the licensing rules. They asked the Supreme Court to decide whether the Second Amendment allows the government to prohibit citizens from carrying handguns outside the home for self-defense.
But New York Attorney General Letitia James argued the law "is consistent with the historical scope of the Second Amendment and directly advances New York's compelling interests in public safety and crime prevention."
In its unsigned order on Monday, the Supreme Court said it would consider "[w]hether the State's denial of petitioners' applications for concealed-carry licenses for self-defense violated the Second Amendment."