The United States Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday in a case that could loosen gun restrictions in New York state, the biggest guns rights case heard by the nation’s top court in more than a decade.
The justices are considering a challenge by the New York Rifle and Pistol Association and two individual gun owners to a century-old New York state law that requires citizens to obtain a licence to carry a concealed handgun.
The law, enacted in 1913, also requires people to state a specific reason for needing a gun for self-defence.
Americans should not “have to satisfy a government official that they have a really good need” or that they “face atypical risks” in order to exercise their right to carry a gun, argued Paul Clement, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case.
The Second Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” – but the history and practice of gun regulation in the US has varied over time and from state to state.
The high-stakes case is being argued before a Supreme Court with a 6-3 conservative majority following the nomination of three justices by former President Donald Trump – and gun control advocates have raised fears the court’s makeup could lead to a rollback of gun control laws.
At a small rally outside the court ahead of the hearing on Wednesday, Angela Ferrell-Zabata, vice president of the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, said the “potential consequences [of the case] are pretty bad”.
The top court’s eventual decision “could make it harder for states and cities to address this crisis” of gun violence in the US, Ferrell-Zabata said.
A number of US states, including California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island, as well as several cities, have gun-control laws similar to New York’s that limit citizens from carrying concealed weapons.
How the court rules could have affect whether these states can continue to restrict licences to carry them.
Most US states either do not require a permit to carry a gun or have “shall issue” laws that require officials to issue concealed carry permits to law-abiding citizens on request.
“Why isn’t it good enough to say I live in a violent area and I want to be able to defend myself?” Justice Brett Kavanaugh, one of three new conservatives appointed to the court by Trump, asked during the hearing on Wednesday.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined liberal justices in questioning whether ruling against the New York law would prevent New York City from banning the carrying of weapons in subways, sports venues, or bars and restaurants.
“What sort of place do you think they could be excluded from? Any place where alcohol is served?” Roberts asked Clement.
At the same time, however, Roberts expressed doubt about the New York law. “The idea that you would need a licence to exercise a right is unusual with regard to the Bill of Rights,” he said.
Other conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch appeared sympathetic to the claims of the New York gun owners on principle.
Meanwhile, liberal Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor raised public safety concerns about allowing more guns in public spaces.
The Supreme Court hearing comes as gun violence has surged in the US.
The country has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, with an estimated 120 guns per 100 people, and records roughly 40,000 gun deaths annually from suicides and homicides, according to data from the FBI and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The Supreme Court last issued a major decision on gun rights in 2008 when it ruled in Heller vs District of Columbia that a law in the city of Washington, DC, requiring citizens to keep guns “unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock” violated the Second Amendment.
That ruling had the narrow effect of protecting the right of individuals to keep a gun in their homes, but Washington, DC, continues to regulate the purchase, ownership and carrying of guns within its city limits.