The United States Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that could jeopardize one of the foundational provisions of New York State’s gun control laws. At issue is a 108-year-old provision in state law that requires anyone who wants to get a license to carry a concealed handgun outside the home to show “proper cause” before being granted a permit.
During two hours of oral arguments Wednesday morning, conservative Justice Samuel Alito pressed New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood, painting a bleak picture of New York City streets with hard-working New Yorkers returning home late at night from their jobs without a firearm in hand to protect themselves.
“People who work late at night in Manhattan, might be somebody who cleans offices, might be a doorman, at an apartment might be a nurse or an orderly or somebody who washes dishes…They have to commute home by subway, maybe by bus, when they arrive at the subway station or the bus stop they have to walk some distance through a high-crime area,” Alito said. “There have been a lot of muggings in that area. They do not get licenses. Is that correct?”
“There are lots of people on the subways even at midnight, as I can say from experience, and the particular spector of a lot of armed people in an enclosed space…”
She was cut off by Alito who continued, “All these people with illegal guns, they're on the subway - but the ordinary people, they're walking around the streets, but the ordinary hard-working, law-abiding people I mentioned, no, they can't be armed?”
Asked about the possibility that the state's gun permitting law might be overturned at a press conference Thursday morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was concerned.
"It's a little surreal that we have justices of the Supreme Court suggesting it would be great to have more and more people armed walking the streets of the city and somehow that's a way to settle disputes and problems," he said. "I'm really worried."
During the course of the questioning, liberal-leaning Justice Elena Kagan asked attorney Paul Clement, who was representing the plaintiffs, what New York should do in “sensitive” locations like the subway or college campuses.
“Well, NYU doesn’t have much of a campus,” Clement replied.
The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, a subsidiary of the National Rifle Association, and two of its members sued the state in 2019, arguing the centennial law infringed on their member’s Second Amendment rights. The two were seeking handgun permits and were denied.
In practice, individual local police departments and other officials have wide latitude to grant and reject permits as they see fit. Across New York State in the two-year period of 2018 and 2019, around 37,800 unrestricted gun licenses to carry a firearm were granted, about 65% of applications received, according to data state officials presented to the Supreme Court.
In 2017, the American Journal of Public Health published an expansive study of 25 years of murder rates across all 50 states. It found handgun homicide rates were 10.6% higher in states with laxer rules around carrying concealed weapons. Another study published three years ago in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies found states that adopted the right to carry provisions saw an 13 to 15% percent increase in violent crime over the following decade. Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence has tracked similar trends.
Gun violence prevention groups have flocked to back New York’s in the pending case, as have groups of law enforcement officers and the American Medical Society. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case by next summer.
“For more than 100 years, New York’s Sullivan law has governed the carrying of firearms outside the home and helped us protect public spaces. But that law is now under attack by those who refuse to simply show proper cause for carrying a concealed weapon while in public,” said Attorney General Letitia James. “This is about protecting New Yorkers’ lives.”