NY's pistol permit limits shot down

A customer checks out a hand gun that is for sale and on display at SP firearms on Thursday in Hempstead. (AP Photo/Brittainy Newman)

In a major gun rights case, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down New York's tight restrictions on the issuance of concealed carry permits for handguns, a ruling critics claim will fuel gun violence.

Democrats who control both houses of the state Legislature are now expected to return to the statehouse in Albany to address the top court's ruling by passing new legislation they hope will withstand court scrutiny while restricting the ability of individuals to carry weapons in subways, office buildings and other places where people gather.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, called the ruling in the case known as the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, “a devastating blow to Americans across the country who are tired of living in constant fear of gun violence."

But Tom King, president of the Rifle & Pistol Association, told CNHI he’s outraged Democrats are already maneuvering to advance new pistol permit restrictions.

"What they are planning to do is simply un-American," King said in a phone interview minutes after the ruling was issued.

The administrations of President Joe Biden and Gov. Kathy Hochul had both argued the justices should uphold New York's restrictions.

Hochul noted the state is coping with a pall of grief following the racist massacre of 10 African Americans at a Buffalo supermarket last month.

"This decision isn't just reckless," said Hochul. "It's reprehensible. It's not what New Yorkers want."

Hochul had supported gun rights a decade ago when she served in Congress. But she became an advocate for gun control in 2015 after becoming lieutenant governor under then Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

She said she believes New York can address the Supreme Court's criticism of New York's law by crafting "objective" criteria for the issuance of gun permits.

Champions of gun ownership rights such as Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Saratoga County, who had filed an amicus brief in support of the gun rights group, said the 6-3 decision protects the rights of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves outside their homes.

“While the Far-Left continues to push unconstitutional gun control measures as New York’s failed bail reform policies (that) have made our communities more unsafe, this ruling comes at a crucial time," Stefanik said in a statement.

The ruling is expected to boost challenges to similar handgun restrictions in Massachusetts, Maryland, Rhode Island, California, Hawaii and New Jersey.

The New York Legislature should be brought back to Albany immediately to address the ruling, argued Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-Long Island, competing with Hochul in next week's Democratic primary for governor.

"I would support anything to make concealed carry as restrictive as possible while still trying to pass constitutional muster," Suozzi said after the ruling was issued

State law makes it a crime to carry a loaded handgun without a license.

The majority decision was written by Justice Clarence Thomas, He concluded New York's requirement that pistol license applicants demonstrate "proper cause" and be deemed to be of "good moral character" to support their stated need for defending themselves violates the constitutional "right to keep and bear arms in public."

“When the Second Amendment’s plain text covers an individual’s conduct, the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct,” Thomas wrote. “The government must then justify its regulation by demonstrating that it is consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

“We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need,” Thomas wrote.

Legal experts called the decision the most significant gun rights ruling by the high court in more than a decade.

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, noted the New York law that was struck down has been on the books since 1913.

"Today’s opinion could be the biggest expansion of gun rights by SCOTUS in the country’s history," Waldman said.

The National Rifle Association, which backed the two men seeking unrestricted permits in New York, called the ruling "a watershed win."

The three dissenters in the case were the court's three liberals — Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

In dissenting, Breyer wrote the majority decision offered no guidance for how state officials could craft restrictions on firearms in public places. “What about subways, nightclubs, movie theaters, and sports stadiums? The Court does not say,” Breyer commented.

But Justice Samuel Alito, in concurring with Thomas, invoked the Buffalo massacre as he took issue with Breyer's argument that the majority ruling would "severely burden" efforts by states to address gun violence.

“How does the dissent account for the fact that one of the mass shootings near the top of its list took place in Buffalo?” Alito wrote. “The New York law at issue in this case obviously did not stop that perpetrator.”

Also concurring, Justice Brett Kavanagh said the states potentially impacted by the ruling could simply embrace "objective licensing requirements" in use by 43 other states.

Under New York's licensing protocol, law enforcement personnel conduct reviews of applications to determine if those seeking concealed carry permits have “proper cause” to carry a firearm for self-defense. Some applicants have indicated they were instructed by licensing officials to only seek a permit for target practice, discouraging applications for self-defense purposes.

The case wended its way through the court system after a lawsuit was filed by two men, Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, along with the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, after a Rensselaer County judge ruled the men lacked sufficient reason for carrying handguns with them for self-defense.

Nash and Koch had each been granted a license to carry a handgun in public, though the permits were marked "hunting & target," by the local licensing officer, thus disallowing their ability to carry a firearm outside the home for the purpose of self-defense. The two men are members of the Rifle and Pistol Association, which defends the right of New York residents to keep and bear arms.

King told CNHI that about 70% of the pistol permits issued in New York come with the same limitations clamped on Nash and Koch in Rensselaer County. "That's why we decided to move forward with this case," King told CNHI.

King said his group will challenge any legislative effort to restrict the ability of New Yorkers to carry handguns into houses of worship, subways, theaters, restaurants and other gathering places.

"A gun-free zone is a target-rich environment," King said. While there have been several mass shootings at houses of worship, he said, there are also examples where armed individuals were able to respond to the assailant with deadly force.

State Police Superintendent Kevin Bruen was among those named as a defendant because his agency is involved in the promulgation of the rules governing the permits.

The State Police signaled the ruling is being studied by its lawyers and the agency had no immediate comment on how the ruling could impact the pistol permit application process.

The ruling comes against the backdrop of building drama at the nation's Capitol over a package of gun measures that emerged in response to the schoolhouse massacre in Uvalde, Texas, and the supermarket rampage in Buffalo. The U.S. Senate is expected to pass several gun bills before breaking for the July 4 recess.

In New York, the two ends of the spectrum in the gun debate reflect regional differences, with rural residents generally being opposed to restrictive gun control measures and residents of the nation's most populous urban area, metropolitan New York City, generally in support of such restrictions.

A Democrat from the largest upstate city, Buffalo, Sen. Sean Ryan, decried the ruling, saying: "Putting more guns on New York’s streets will only make it easier for criminals to get their hands on them. Requiring a proper cause for concealed carry is an overwhelmingly popular policy. We will explore ways to adjust our laws within the scope of today’s decision in order to keep New Yorkers safe.”

But Senate GOP Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, welcomed the decision.

"Sadly, Albany politicians have already created a false narrative that the Federal ruling will lead to more violence in our communities," he said.

The lobby group for New York's Roman Catholic bishops waded into the debate, saying it supports "reasonable gun laws" that would pass constitutional muster.

The Catholic Conference said the majority ruling "does not overturn the rights of states to require licenses to possess handguns, whether inside the home or not."

Citing Alito's opinion, the bishops noted states remain empowered to craft licensing requirements, age restrictions and bans on assault weapons.

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