Two major developments in Washington yesterday upended the terrain of the American gun debate. The first was a Supreme Court ruling striking down a New York State law that restricted people’s ability to carry guns in public. The second was the Senate passage of a bipartisan bill that would become the most significant change to federal gun safety laws in nearly three decades.
“Both of these things are very rare,” said Alex McCourt, a public health lawyer at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions who studies the relationship between gun policy and gun violence. “The Supreme Court doesn’t do Second Amendment cases very often, and Congress doesn’t pass major gun legislation very often.”
McCourt cautioned that it would take time to fully see the effects of yesterday’s events. But because the Senate’s bill is narrow — the result of a bipartisan compromise — he and other experts predicted that the court’s move to broaden gun rights would probably have a more significant effect on gun violence.
Today’s newsletter explains how yesterday’s developments may change the status quo.
In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court struck down a century-old New York law that required people who wanted to carry a concealed handgun in public to demonstrate a need to do so. The law, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority, prevented “law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms in public.”
The decision, in effect, says the Constitution guarantees the right to carry a firearm outside the home. The ruling will likely reverberate beyond New York.
California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey have similar laws that they will be forced to rewrite. “We can expect other states’ laws to be challenged and eventually for the Supreme Court to refine what is permissible,” said our colleague Jonah Bromwich, who covers criminal justice.
America’s gun violence problem is already worse than that of similar nations. Democrats and experts fear the ruling will increase the number of guns on the streets and make shootings more common.
The Senate passed the gun safety bill, with 15 Republicans joining Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged a quick vote in the House.
The fact that Congress is on the verge of passing a gun bill at all is notable, and its efforts come just weeks after two horrific mass shootings — at a supermarket in Buffalo and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas — helped prompt lawmakers to pursue legislation.
“So many times over the last couple decades, we’ve seen Congress fail to act after a devastating shooting, even when lawmakers and advocates vowed again and again that it would be different,” Emily Cochrane, a Times congressional reporter, told us. “It finally was different.”
But the legislation doesn’t include the toughest gun control measures that advocates sought, reflecting the realities of an evenly divided Senate. One provision would make it harder for people under 21 to buy a gun by requiring law enforcement to check purchasers’ juvenile and mental-health records. But that provision would expire after 10 years, a caveat Republicans insisted on.
Another provision would close the so-called boyfriend loophole, adding intimate partners to the list of domestic abusers who are barred from buying a gun. But the ban would expire after a few years for first-time misdemeanor offenders who maintained a clean record, and Republicans demanded it not be retroactive.
A third measure sets aside $750 million to help states implement red flag laws, which let judges temporarily confiscate guns from people who threaten themselves or others, as well as other crisis intervention programs. But the bill stops short of creating a federal red flag law.
Republicans have blamed mass shootings on mental-health problems. The bill includes hundreds of millions of dollars to train medical workers and school personnel to respond to mental-health crises and funding for school safety programs and school resource officers.
Enacting the Senate bill may have only a limited impact on gun violence in the short term. Studies suggest that closing the boyfriend loophole would reduce gun violence, McCourt said, but the effect of more funding for mental health is less certain. Gun purchases often spike after mass shootings as Americans fear new restrictions, and the latest congressional action could similarly drive sales. There’s also no guarantee that states will actually adopt the red flag laws the bill incentivizes.
Some experts fear that yesterday’s court ruling lays the groundwork to challenge even red flag laws. In his majority opinion, Thomas wrote that gun laws must be rooted in historical tradition to be constitutional.
But the ruling is already driving left-leaning states to consider additional gun control laws that comply. Kathy Hochul, New York’s Democratic governor, vowed yesterday to pass new restrictions. “Gun laws are really being remade in real time in this country in a way that’s truly remarkable,” Jonah said.
And the court’s conservative majority itself appears somewhat split. Thomas’s ruling endorsed an aggressive reading of gun rights. But two of his Republican-appointed colleagues — Brett Kavanaugh and John Roberts, the chief justice — wrote in a concurring opinion that the Second Amendment, “properly interpreted,” permits a variety of gun regulations, appearing to endorse the constitutionality of many state gun laws. That makes it hard to know how much further even this deeply conservative court is willing to go.
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