Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which struck down a New York law that restricts the right to carry concealed weapons in the nation’s most populous city, is a triumph of conservative ideology over common sense.
“Shocking. Absolutely shocking,” said a visibly furious New York Gov. Kathy Hochul minutes after the ruling was announced. “If the federal government will not have sweeping laws to protect us, then our states and our governors have a moral responsibility to do what we can and have laws that protect our citizens because of what is going on ― the insanity of the gun culture that has now possessed everyone all the way up to even to the Supreme Court.”
Insanity is the right word.
New York City is home to about 8.8 million people – with the addition of hundreds of thousands of commuters and tourists every day – all in about 300 square miles. Despite the density of people, the Big Apple annually ranks among the safest cities in America, due in part to a law dating back a century that limits concealed-carry handgun licenses to those who can establish “proper cause.”
The privilege has generally been limited to professional security guards, active and retired law enforcement personnel and proprietors of certain businesses, like check cashers and diamond dealers, who walk around with lots of cash or jewelry. But the conservative majority of the Supreme Court struck down the use of “proper cause” – which was never clearly defined in New York law – as a criteria for allowing concealed-carry pistol permits.
The majority opinion, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, holds that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms should not be parceled out by bureaucrats using unwritten criteria to decide who gets to enjoy their Constitutional rights. “We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need,” Thomas writes.
That’s a fair enough complaint – but as Justice Stephen Breyer points out in his dissent, Thomas and the court majority simply assumed bureaucratic intransigence, but never proved it – and in fact, never allowed for any kind of fact-finding investigation of how New York’s law works, and whether its licensing criteria was overly burdensome or unfair in practice.
“New York’s Legislature considered the empirical evidence about gun violence and adopted a reasonable licensing law to regulate the concealed carriage of handguns in order to keep the people of New York safe,” Breyer’s dissent says. “The Court today… gives the State no opportunity to present evidence justifying its reasons for adopting the law or showing how the law actually operates in practice, and it does not so much as acknowledge these important considerations.”
What makes Bruen a truly radical decision is that the Court has ordered New York (along with six other states and the District of Columbia) to loosen the way it issues gun licenses and dole them out based on an unspecified set of requirements.
“New York City in 1791, when the Second Amendment was ratified, had 33,000 people in it. New York City now has eight million residents and more on a work day,” says Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice. “It is crowded, it is dangerous. And the notion that we’ll all feel better if we just think the person who’s walking towards us on the street might be carrying a weapon, that that will all make us feel more secure unless we are packing ourselves – I don’t think that rings very true to most New York City residents, irrespective of their political views.”
New York officials at every level of government will now have their work cut out for them as they try to craft gun regulations that fall within the bounds of Thursday’s SCOTUS decision.
“Today’s ruling will have broad & dangerous consequences for states, including NY, that have chosen to prioritize the right of people to feel safe – not just in schools & government buildings, but at their place of worship or the grocery store – over unfettered access to firearms,” the speaker of the New York State Assembly, Carl Heastie, tweeted. “For more than 100 years, New York State has required individuals to establish proper cause to carry a gun in public spaces because we know that more guns do not make our streets safer.”
Heastie and his fellow lawmakers will likely convene in a special session within a matter of weeks. They must now create a list of who won’t be allowed concealed-carry permits. It will likely include people convicted of felonies, dishonorably discharged from the military, or found to be mentally infirm – criteria that New York was already using before the Bruen decision. And the Supreme Court allowed for the possibility that states can designate special areas – like Times Square or the World Trade Center – where guns would be flat-out prohibited.
So initially, at least, it won’t be particularly easy to get permission to pack heat on the streets of New York. But we are a step closer to having America’s tsunami of guns wash into places that have until now, instituted common sense gun regulations.