A recent hearing left the impression that the Supreme Court’s conservative majority is inclined to strike down a gun law that’s been on the books for more than 100 years. That would be a grievous error — and would make cities across the nation more dangerous.
The law, passed by New York state, says those who wish to carry a firearm in public must show “proper cause,” or a demonstrated need for personal protection. A lawsuit brought by a state affiliate of the National Rifle Association claims such a restriction infringes on the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.
More than a decade ago, in District of Columbia v. Heller, late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia emphasized that there are legitimate public safety reasons for governments to adopt firearm regulations, including those that govern the public square. “Like most rights,” he wrote for the court, the Second Amendment “is not unlimited.” Indeed, the historic record of gun regulation, including centuries of common law and English and American jurisprudence, allows for regulating firearms in public spaces.
The prospect of armed citizens walking down New York’s sidewalks and riding its subways and buses is a disaster waiting to happen. People will feel less safe — and they will be less safe, not only because criminals will be emboldened to carry guns, but because those who legally possess firearms may pull them out during confrontations that might otherwise be settled with words.
It was troubling to hear Justice Samuel Alito suggest that concealed carry should be allowed because of crime on the subways. Any New Yorker who lived through the Bernie Goetz saga knows the danger such sentiment is courting. But it isn’t just victims of muggings who might shoot and kill. When witnessing a crime, citizens carrying guns may be tempted to use them, firing off rounds and endangering many. Police officers, who regularly practice shooting, often miss their targets. Civilians are far more likely to kill innocents.
The cost of gun violence is already much too high: Each year, firearms are used in some 13,000 murders and 23,000 suicides.
If the Supreme Court strikes down this law, expect that tally to rise — because other state laws may fall too. New York is one of eight “may-issue” states in which a state or local authority has discretion over whether to issue a concealed-carry gun permit after an applicant has passed basic age and background assessments. Proof of “good” or “proper” cause is one of the strongest requirements. Note that New York and California contain nearly 20% of the nation’s population and its two largest cities. Even states that are considered “shall-issue” often display a modicum of discretion.
Some conservative justices seemed to concede a municipality has the right to specify areas where guns are prohibited — in heavy crowds, for example. But crowds in New York are a 24/7 phenomenon and not restricted to Times Square. That’s part of what makes the city special — and safer than most other big cities. There is safety in crowds, but there will be less of it if the court strikes down New York’s law.
The conservative justices should let precedent stand — and let cities and states continue protecting their residents and visitors with reasonable gun regulations that respect rights and protect lives.