WASHINGTON (CN) — New York gun restrictions on who can qualify to get a concealed-carry license drew sharp questions Wednesday at Supreme Court oral arguments, suggesting similar laws across the country could soon find themselves in a cascade of dominoes.
The case before the court — the first of its kind in over a decade — hinges how on the Second Amendment’s phrasing of “to keep and bear arms” applies to carrying guns in public. While the court affirmed the right to keep arms in one’s home in the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, there is no precedent for how those constitutional rights are applied outside the home.
The conservative justices on the court seemed to agree with the argument by gun advocacy that citizens have the right to carry guns to use in self-defense.
“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 asked.
Some of the justices probed how New York’s licensing law was applied in terms of population. Chief Justice John Roberts said the state was more willing to grant gun licenses in less populated areas, even while crime rates are higher, creating a greater need for self-defense, in the more populated areas where licenses are granted less often.
“It's paradoxical that you say a place is a high crime area but don't worry about it because there are a lot of police around,” the Bush appointee said.
Roberts continued, “how many muggings take place in the forest?”
Justice Samuel Alito said New York’s law catered to celebrities, state judges and retired police officers who would be able to receive licenses over ordinary people.
“All these people with illegal guns, they’re on the subway, wandering around the streets, but the ordinary hard-working law-abiding people I mentioned, no, they can't be armed,” the Bush appointee said.
Conversely, the liberal justices on the court were highly critical of the expansion of Second Amendment rights. Justice Stephen Breyer cautioned against making a ruling leading to “gun-related chaos.” The Clinton appointee gave a hypothetical about what would happen if more guns were allowed in situations with heavy drinking and angry sports fans.
“I think that people of good moral character who start drinking a lot, and who may be there for a football game or some kind of soccer game, can get pretty angry at each other, and if they each have a concealed weapon, who knows,” Breyer said. “And there are plenty of statistics in these briefs to show there are some people who do know and a lot of people end up dead. OK?”
Justice Breyer cited a brief submitted by social scientists and public health researchers that provides data demonstrating that more restrictive gun laws prevent violent crime.
“The social scientists’ brief makes clear that the leading empirical scientific evidence does demonstrate that laws like New York save lives, whereas states that have more permissive right to carry regimes suffer from increased rates of homicide and violent crime,” Samuel Levander, an attorney at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton who represents the scientists in their brief, said in a phone call.
Justice Elena Kagan tried to nail down the complicated nature of expanding gun rights in a city like New York and asked the attorney representing New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, Paul Clement, if guns should be restricted on subways or at universities or sporting stadiums. Clement, an attorney with Kirkland & Ellis, avoided answering if guns should be allowed on subways but said at universities carrying a gun would be OK. He spoke in particular about New York University, which he recognized is not “much of a campus.” The private institution has property scattered about lower Manhattan with something of a symbolic quad in the iconic Washington Square Park.