The Supreme Court on Wednesday took up its first major guns case in more than a decade, considering whether New Yorkers have the right to carry concealed handguns in public for self-defense.

Justices heard arguments from petitioners in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which challenges a long-standing state law requiring residents to demonstrate a "proper cause" for obtaining a license to carry a concealed pistol or revolver. Following deliberations, justices appeared skeptical of some portions of the Empire State's law as the conservative majority posed stern questions over the constitutionality of the regulation.

Paul Clement, a former solicitor general under the George W. Bush administration, stood as counsel before the court for Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, as well as the NYSRPA, a National Rifle Association affiliate. Clement told justices that his clients have not been denied a special need for self-defense that is required under New York law to receive an unrestricted license.

Still, both the attorney's clients have already passed required background checks for gun licenses for hunting and target practice, Clement said, arguing the law attempts "to convert a fundamental constitutional right into a privilege."


Liberal justices such as Stephen Breyer first sought to poke holes in the would-be arguments of novel conservative court justices, noting professors of history make contradicting arguments related to gun rights history.

"This is a wonderful case for showing both sides, so not sure how to deal with the history," Breyer said. Justices also mentioned the ever-changing laws of states including Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana, which once prohibited concealed carry weapons but now have more relaxed gun restrictions. The liberal justices also appealed to the public safety justification behind the state's law.

Sonia Sotomayor, another liberal-leaning justice on the bench, later contended that history itself does not paint Second Amendment rights with a broad brush.

“It seems to me that I don’t know how I can pass through all that history — well, without you, sort of making it up — and saying there’s a right to control states that has never been exercised in the entire history of the United States — as to how far they can go and say, this poses a danger,” Sotomayor said.

On behalf of President Joe Biden's administration, the Justice Department argued in favor of deferring to the common practice of allowing legislators to implement reasonable limits on firearms for safety purposes.

“We don't quarrel at all with the notion that the Second Amendment has something to say outside the home,” said DOJ attorney Brian Fletcher. “Our submission is just that to understand how it applies outside the home, one has to look to the history and tradition of regulations.

New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood was also present to defend what the state considers to be its reasonable licensing regime, arguing unrestricted concealed carry is more available in rural areas compared to cities.

Chief Justice John Roberts posited whether the rural vs. urban framework made sense, asking Underwood whether the need for self-defense may be greater in an urban environment.

“How many muggings take place in the forest?” asked Roberts, to which Underwood said she took his point but added, "There is also a different public safety consideration. And that is why the licensing officer is meant to take into account not just the risk, but also the population and the availability of law enforcement."

Justice Samuel Alito, one of the most conservative justices on the bench, pointed to an uptick of illegal gun seizures in the Empire State in recent months.

“How many illegal guns were seized by the New York Police Department last year? Do you have any idea?” he asked Underwood, who said the number was likely substantial. “All these people with illegal guns, they're on the subway, they’re walking around the streets. But the ordinary, hard-working, law-abiding people I mentioned, no, they can't be armed?”

    The Second Amendment case on Wednesday represents a pickup from where the court stood over 10 years ago in the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision, in which justices ruled 5-4 that the Second Amendment protects a person's right to harbor a gun in a residence for self-defense.

    Justices largely left the 2008 case open-ended as far as what gun restrictions are permitted under the Constitution but made note that the right is "not unlimited."


    The Supreme Court will likely come to a decision on New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen by the summer of 2022.