WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court on Thursday declared for the first time that the US Constitution protects an individual’s right to carry a handgun in public for self-defense, handing a landmark victory to gun rights advocates in a nation deeply divided over how to address firearms violence.
The 6-3 ruling, with the court’s conservative justices in the majority and liberal justices in dissent, struck down New York state’s limits on carrying concealed handguns outside the home. The court found that the law, enacted in 1913, violated a person’s right to “keep and bear arms” under the US Constitution’s Second Amendment.
The ruling, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, declared that the Constitution protects “an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.”
Thomas added: “We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need.”
The ruling could undermine similar restrictions in other states and imperil other types of state and local firearms restrictions nationwide.
Gun rights, held dear by many Americans and promised by the country’s 18th century founders, are a contentious issue in a nation with high levels of firearms violence including numerous mass shootings. President Joe Biden, who has called gun violence a national embarrassment, condemned the decision.
“This ruling contradicts both common sense and the Constitution, and should deeply trouble us all,” Biden said. “In the wake of the horrific attacks in Buffalo and Uvalde, as well as the daily acts of gun violence that do not make national headlines, we must do more as a society – not less – to protect our fellow Americans.”
The United States has experienced hundreds of deaths from dozens of mass shootings in recent years. Just in recent weeks, 19 children and two teachers were killed on May 24 at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and 10 people were slain on May 14 at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York.
The New York restriction is unconstitutional because it “prevents law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms,” Thomas added.
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in dissent that the court had expanded gun rights without wrestling with the “nature or severity” of firearms violence in a country where there are more guns per person than any other nation.
“I fear that the court’s interpretation ignores these significant dangers and leaves states without the ability to address them,” Breyer wrote.
The justices overturned a lower court ruling throwing out a challenge to the law by two gun owners and the New York affiliate of the National Rifle Association (NRA), an influential gun rights group closely aligned with Republicans.
The decision represents the court’s most important statement on gun rights in more than a decade. The court in 2008 recognized for the first time an individual’s right to keep guns at home for self-defense in a case from the District of Columbia, and in 2010 applied that right to the states.
The new ruling underscored how the 6-3 conservative majority on the court is sympathetic to an expansive reading of Second Amendment rights.