After a rash of robberies in his neighborhood, Robert Nash sought a license to carry a handgun in public in New York. Brandon Koch sought a license after he completed gun safety courses. But state officials denied a license to both law-abiding men. They claimed neither had showed a particularized need for firearms.
For more than 100 years, under a statute known as the Sullivan Law, New York has criminalized the failure to procure a license before obtaining a gun. An applicant must first demonstrate that he is of "good moral character, has no history of crime or mental illness, and that 'no good cause exists for the denial of the license.' " Additionally, a license to carry a concealed handgun outside one's home or business requires the applicant to show "proper cause."
Because the Sullivan Law does not define "proper cause," courts in New York have interpreted "proper cause" to require a licensee to show a special need to defend herself, rather than a general desire to protect herself or her property. In particular, a licensee must "demonstrate a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community."
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Only six other states have such restrictions on carrying arms in public.
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Nash and Koch joined forces with the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association and brought suit in federal court claiming the Sullivan Law violated their Second Amendment rights to bear arms.
Lower courts upheld the law, but the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck it down, specifically faulting New York's denial of concealed-carry licenses for the two law-abiding citizens.
In a decision authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court said the law violated the Second and 14th Amendments, which "protect an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home."
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An army of special interests weighed in on this case with amici briefs and commentary, including a group of public defenders who found that about 96% of the people arrested by the New York Police Department for firearm possession are people of color, so the Sullivan Law has had a discriminatory impact on minorities.
Competing interests already balanced
The court’s decision affirms that a constitutional right does not require pre-clearance. In other words, the Second Amendment does not depend on the judgment of a state bureaucrat.
The court held that "when the Second Amendment’s plain text covers an individual’s conduct, the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct."
The court concluded: "The Second Amendment 'is the very product of an interest balancing by the people' and it 'surely elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms' for self-defense. ... It is this balance – struck by the traditions of the American people – that demands our unqualified deference."
Context matters. While certain restrictions on gun use have long been part of the Anglo-American tradition, the court ruled that a law predicating a constitutional right on pre-clearance erodes citizen autonomy.
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In two prior cases, District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, the court affirmed an individual right to carry guns. Moreover, the text of the Second Amendment is broadly phrased: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
Notably limited in scope
The court’s decision notes the type of applications New York denied, a matter relevant to understanding how restrictive the application process is in New York.
The court did not question whether the government could still restrict gun ownership in vulnerable places such as schools and courthouses. The court compared New York's statute with many other state laws, which grant far less discretion to officials to deny permits. In other words, the justices limited the scope of their ruling.
The key to understanding this case is found in the level of discretion invested in bureaucrats who allegedly have used their power to disfavor people unaffiliated with law enforcement, create artificial definitions of a "violent felony" and burden citizens with significant fees, as the Sullivan Law's numerous critics have noted.
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The Sullivan Law is highly unusual and does not reflect a majority approach nationally, so this limited ruling from the court will not have a disruptive effect on the daily lives of most Americans.
The Supreme Court decides cases based on the facts and the law presented. The court does not create national policy. The overly restrictive Sullivan Law undermines the Second Amendment. The Constitution must prevail.
Rachel K. Paulose is a 1997 graduate of Yale Law School who served as U.S. attorney for Minnesota from 2006 to 2008.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court decision against New York gun law is the right call