WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Americans have a broad right to arm themselves in public, striking down a New York law that placed strict limits on carrying guns outside the home and setting off a scramble in other states that have similar restrictions.
The decision is expected to spur a wave of lawsuits seeking to loosen existing state and federal restrictions and will force five states — California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey, home to a quarter of all Americans — to rewrite their laws.
The ruling follows the mass shootings last month in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, and was handed down on a day when the Senate passed gun control legislation that would enhance background checks for prospective gun buyers ages 18 to 21, provide incentives for states to enact so-called red-flag laws and tighten a federal ban on domestic abusers buying firearms. It was Congress’s most significant action on gun legislation in nearly three decades.
The 6-to-3 decision again illustrated the power of the six conservative justices, all of whom voted to strike down the New York law, in setting the national agenda on social issues. The court’s three liberal members dissented.
The Second Amendment, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority, protects “an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.” States can continue to prohibit guns in some locations like schools and government buildings, Justice Thomas wrote, but the ruling left open where exactly such bans might be allowed.
Moments after the ruling was issued, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York vowed to reconvene the Legislature as early as next month to enact new measures that could let the state maintain existing regulations. Democratic lawmakers in Maryland also suggested they would rewrite legislation to survive expected legal challenges.
“We’re already dealing with a major gun violence crisis,” Ms. Hochul said. “We don’t need to add more fuel to this fire.”
The case concerned so-called may issue laws, which give government officials substantial discretion over issuing gun licenses.
In a concurring opinion, one that appeared to limit the sweep of the majority opinion, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., wrote that “shall issue” laws used objective criteria and 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.”
Justice Kavanaugh also extensively quoted the court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which appeared to endorse other restrictions.
President Biden denounced the ruling, describing himself as “deeply disappointed.” It “contradicts both common sense and the Constitution and should deeply trouble us all,” he added.
Gun rights advocates welcomed the decision on Thursday. “The court has made clear that the Second Amendment right to bear arms is not limited to the home,” said Larry Keane, a top official with the gun industry’s top trade group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “That the burden is on the government to justify restrictions, not on the individual to justify to the government a need to exercise their rights.”
The share prices of firearms manufacturers rose on Wall Street, with Smith & Wesson climbing more than 9 percent.
Jonathan Lowy, a lawyer with Brady, a gun control group, said the decision was a grave misstep. “In a stroke of the pen,” he said in a statement, “the Supreme Court today has invented a supposed right to carry, virtually anywhere, loaded guns — to potentially shoot and kill other people.”
The case centered on a lawsuit from two men who were denied the licenses they sought in New York, saying that “the state makes it virtually impossible for the ordinary law-abiding citizen to obtain a license.”
The men, Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, were authorized to carry guns for target practice and hunting away from populated areas, state officials told the Supreme Court, and Mr. Koch was allowed to carry a gun to and from work.
Justice Thomas wrote that citizens may not be required to explain to the government why they sought to exercise a constitutional right.
“We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need,” he wrote.
“That is not how the First Amendment works when it comes to unpopular speech or the free exercise of religion,” he added. “It is not how the Sixth Amendment works when it comes to a defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him. And it is not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to public carry for self-defense.”
The majority opinion announced a general standard by which courts must now judge restrictions on gun rights, one that relies on historical assessments: “The government must demonstrate that the regulation is consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”
In focusing heavily on history, Justice Thomas rejected the standard used by most lower courts, which considered whether the law advanced an important government interest.
He acknowledged that the historical inquiry the court now requires will not always be straightforward.
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 dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the majority’s guidance was inadequate, leaving unclear the scope of the court’s ruling.
“What about subways, nightclubs, movie theaters and sports stadiums?” Justice Breyer wrote. “The court does not say.”
Justice Breyer’s dissent, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, focused on the deadly toll of gun violence.
“In 2020,” he wrote, “45,222 Americans were killed by firearms. Since the start of this year, there have been 277 reported mass shootings — an average of more than one per day. Gun violence has now surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death among children and adolescents.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. responded to the dissent.
“It is hard to see what legitimate purpose can possibly be served by most of the dissent’s lengthy introductory section,” he wrote. “Why, for example, does the dissent think it is relevant to recount the mass shootings that have occurred in recent years? Does the dissent think that laws like New York’s prevent or deter such atrocities?
“Will a person bent on carrying out a mass shooting be stopped if he knows that it is illegal to carry a handgun outside the home?” Justice Alito asked. “And how does the dissent account for the fact that one of the mass shootings near the top of its list took place in Buffalo? The New York law at issue in this case obviously did not stop that perpetrator.”
Justice Breyer questioned the majority’s methodology for judging the constitutionality of gun control laws in the case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, No. 20-843.
“The court’s near-exclusive reliance on history is not only unnecessary, it is deeply impractical,” he wrote. “It imposes a task on the lower courts that judges cannot easily accomplish.”
Judges, he wrote, are not historians. “Legal experts typically have little experience answering contested historical questions or applying those answers to resolve contemporary problems,” he wrote, adding: “Laws addressing repeating crossbows, launcegays, dirks, dagges, skeines, stilladers and other ancient weapons will be of little help to courts confronting modern problems.”
In the Heller decision, the Supreme Court recognized an individual right to keep guns in the home for self-defense. Since then, it has been almost silent on the scope of Second Amendment rights.
Indeed, the court for many years turned down countless appeals in Second Amendment cases. In the meantime, lower courts generally sustained gun control laws.
The court’s reluctance to hear Second Amendment cases changed as its membership shifted to the right in recent years. President Donald J. Trump’s three appointees — Justices Kavanaugh, Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett — have all expressed support for gun rights.
And the Supreme Court’s most conservative members have long deplored the court’s reluctance to explore the meaning and scope of the Second Amendment.
In 2017, Justice Thomas wrote that he had detected “a distressing trend: the treatment of the Second Amendment as a disfavored right.”
“For those of us who work in marbled halls, guarded constantly by a vigilant and dedicated police force, the guarantees of the Second Amendment might seem antiquated and superfluous,” Justice Thomas wrote. “But the framers made a clear choice: They reserved to all Americans the right to bear arms for self-defense.”
Glenn Thrush contributed reporting.