States with strict gun-permitting laws consider next steps
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a New York state law that had restricted who could obtain a permit to carry a gun in public. Under the law in place since 1913, New York residents needed to show proper cause, or an actual need, to carry a concealed handgun in public for self-defense..
The justices said that law conflicts with the Second Amendment's right to bear arms. It drew swift reaction from New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat who called the decision reckless and said she was prepared to call the Legislature back into session to form a response.
“We do not need people entering our subways, our restaurants and movie theaters with concealed weapons," she said. "We don’t need more guns on our streets.”
New York and a half a dozen other states with similar laws now must decide their next steps. As with New York, California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island all have legislatures controlled by Democrats who could propose measures to ensure that guns will not be allowed in certain places.
Gun rights groups in those states have vowed to continue pushing back against what they view as restrictive gun control laws. Some of those cases eventually could make their way to the nation's high court. A rundown of the similar laws in the other states, reaction to the Supreme Court ruling and what could happen next:
The court’s ruling will likely affect California’s strict permitting laws, said California’s attorney general and gun owners’ rights organizations.
Attorney General Rob Bonta told California law enforcement agencies in a letter earlier this month that “given California’s similar, ‘good cause’ standard, the decision may impact California laws regarding the carrying of firearms in public places.” He said many aspects of California’s law might remain untouched, despite the ruling.
Nearly two-thirds of California’s 58 counties already eased their standards for granting concealed weapons permits after a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the state’s concealed carry standard in 2014, said attorney Chuck Michel, president of the California Rifle and Pistol Association.
They kept the more permissive standard even after a larger appellate panel reversed the decision two years later, said Michel, who wrote a book on California’s strict gun laws.
At issue is the standard that local officials — usually sheriffs, but sometimes police chiefs — use when considering who should be allowed to carry a concealed weapon outside the house. Gun rights advocates say the court overturning the New York law means California must join the 43 states that have what are considered “shall issue” standards. Those generally require officials to issue permits unless there is some reason that an individual should be denied.
Of California’s 58 counties, 37 already grant permits if an applicant requests it for self defense. That effectively makes them “shall issue” counties, advocates said. The other 21 counties have tighter standards, for example requiring applicants to demonstrate that they have business-related or professional risks that justify them being armed.
The Supreme Court decision “not only affirms that laws prohibiting licensed public concealed carry of firearms for self-defense violates the Constitution, but also that courts have been applying the wrong approach to evaluating the constitutionality of gun control laws,” Michel said.
Michel’s organization plans to immediately send the 21 counties legal notices that they must ease their standards in light of the Supreme Court’s decision. He also plans to ask the 9th Circuit to rule on his latest legal challenge to California’s “good cause” standard, a decision that has been on hold awaiting the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision in the New York case.
Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, said his organization expects to quickly sue California to force it to adopt the standard set in the New York decision, and to sue local jurisdictions if they don’t adopt the high court’s ruling.
Hawaii has among the strictest gun laws in the nation. So strict, said attorney Alan Beck, that Hawaii essentially bans carrying guns outside the home. It has been practically impossible to get a permit to carry a loaded gun in public, he said. In the past 22 years, there have been four permits issued in Hawaii, said Beck, who represents various residents challenging Hawaii gun laws.
The state attorney general’s office has argued that it’s not a flat-out ban because people can carry firearms if they have “good cause.” County police chiefs in Hawaii have had the discretion in determining whether to issue a carry permit, something the Supreme Court now says is too restrictive. Without a carry permit, people have been allowed to keep firearms in the home and can transport them – unloaded and locked up – to firing ranges and other limited locations such as for repairs.
One of Beck’s clients is George Young, a Big Island resident who wants to carry a gun for self-defense. Young doesn’t care if it’s concealed or open carry. The favorable ruling in the New York case means Young’s lawsuit would prevail, Beck said.
The Hawaii Rifle Association anticipates that lawmakers now will work to make it difficult to obtain permits, “whether it’s outrageous training requirements or exorbitant fees,” said Kainoa Kaku, the association’s president.
“We’re prepared to train potential concealed carry permit holders for whatever ridiculous requirements the state is going to ask of them,” Kaku said.
State Sen. Chris Lee said lawmakers have been getting ready by introducing bills in the last couple of years that would establish training for those who are licensed to carry weapons. He called Thursday's ruling frustrating.
“I think there’s going to be a rush to figure out how states can intervene and ensure public safety,” he said, adding that lawmakers will be looking at screening, training requirements and ways to keep guns out of public spaces.
Chris Marvin, a Hawaii resident with Everytown for Gun Safety, said lawmakers also could consider legislation that carefully vets applicants for a carry permit and rules to keep guns out of locations such as protests, polling places, state land and schools.
Allowing nearly all civilians to carry guns would be a big cultural shift for Hawaii, Marvin said.
“We live in a place that a lot of people call paradise, and they’re usually talking about the weather. But from a safety standpoint and violence standpoint, we live in a place that is a relative paradise to the rest of the country," he said. "We are not perfect and we certainly have our share of violent incidences, but it would be really strange to be walking down Waikiki Beach and see someone with a side arm visibly on their hip.”
Under current law, a gun owner in Maryland has to show a “good or substantial reason” to carry a concealed gun. That could include showing a person’s life is in danger from threats or that they work in a job that could put them in contact with people who are dangerous.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said the laws are similar to New York's, but they take different approaches. He said he was examining today's ruling to determine its impact on the state.
“Today’s decision means more deaths and more pain in a country already awash in gun violence," Frosh said in a statement. "If the norm is that people can carry firearms, our neighborhoods, our streets and other public places will become more dangerous. It will make the lives of law enforcement more difficult and more perilous.
“The epidemic of gun violence sweeping our nation demonstrates daily the folly of introducing more guns into this boiling cauldron.”
Opponents to the law in Maryland already have sued, in a case that has been on hold in the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, pending the ruling in the New York case.
Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue, a gun-rights group that is challenging the Maryland law, said the group is “absolutely ecstatic” about the court’s ruling.
“It confirms what we’ve always believed — that the right of self-defense extends outside the home,” he said.
Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones, who are both Democrats, said they will review the ruling and pass new gun control legislation if necessary.
“More guns in public means more violence, and more violence means more death and heartache everywhere. This is the wrong answer," they said in a joint statement. “The Second Amendment permits reasonable restrictions on the right to carry a firearm.”
Massachusetts’ law had given local police chiefs the power to decide whether someone is suitable to have a license to carry a handgun. Police chiefs have been able to deny applicants if they determine that the person would pose a risk to public safety, for reasons such as a history of domestic violence. Those who are denied can appeal to their local district court.
The law says those deemed suitable can get a license to carry if they show “good reason to fear injury” to themselves or their property “or for any other reason,” including “for use in sport or target practice only.”
What’s considered a “good reason” has been up to police chiefs, who vary in what they require of applicants to meet that standard. Some demand that applicants show they have a reason to fear injury that distinguishes them from the general population in order to get an unrestricted license.
Massachusetts courts have ruled that if someone can’t show a “good reason to fear injury,” police chiefs can put restrictions on licenses that limit when someone can carry a firearm.
State Attorney General Maura Healey said Thursday that she stands by the state’s “commonsense gun laws and will continue to vigorously defend and enforce them.” The office has not responded to questions from The Associated Press about to what extent Massachusetts’ law will be affected by the ruling.
Jason Guida, former director of the Massachusetts Firearms Records Bureau who now works as a lawyer representing gun owners, said he expects to see a flurry of challenges to gun licensing restrictions in certain communities, like Boston, that courts have upheld in the past.
Communities that restrict gun owners’ licenses for certain purposes unless applicants show a special need for self-defense will need to rewrite their policies: “Otherwise, there’s a strong likelihood in the very near future that these communities will find themselves in federal court,” he said.
State Rep. David Linksy, a Democrat who has advocated for gun control measures, said he is still examining the ruling but is deeply concerned about its potential effect on police chiefs’ ability to use their discretion when issuing gun licenses.
“The end result is there will be an increase in gun violence," he said. “There will be people killed, there will be people injured, and we will all be less safe.”
A federal judge wrote in a 2017 case that Massachusetts law is “in some respects” less restrictive than New York’s because Massachusetts allows — but doesn’t demand— that police chiefs require applicants to “demonstrate a special need for self-defense before being issued an unrestricted license.”
Democratic state Rep. Michael Day, House chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said that lawmakers are trying to sort out what actions they will take in response to the ruling.
“We’re taking a look at that to see exactly what it means and what it doesn’t, but anything that’s been loosened up we’re confident we will be able to tighten back up,” he said.
New Jersey residents no longer must prove “justifiable need” to carry a handgun in light of the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday, but permits are still required, the state’s top law enforcement officer said.
Acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin said in a phone interview that the high court’s ruling in the New York state case “effectively struck down” New Jersey’s requirement that residents seeking carry permits show they face significant threats and have a justifiable need to get a carry permit.
But, he added, the other requirements under New Jersey law still stand. Among them is safety training and a prohibition against certain convicts. As for how soon the change goes into effect, Platkin said he will issue guidance “imminently.”
New Jersey’s gun laws are among the tightest in the nation and got even stricter after former Republican Gov. Chris Christie left office in 2018. He was succeeded by Democrat Phil Murphy, who signed a handful of new bills into law.
Among them were magazine size restrictions and a red flag law. Getting a carry permit in New Jersey is widely considered difficult, and the state’s “justifiable need” requirement paralleled New York’s “proper cause” provision that was just thrown out by the high court.
On Thursday, Murphy called the Supreme Court decision tragic.
“Based on a deeply flawed constitutional methodology, a right-wing majority on the United States Supreme Court has just said that states can no longer decide for ourselves how best to limit the proliferation of firearms in the public sphere," he said.
Gun rights advocates in New Jersey hailed the ruling. Scott Bach, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs, said it “spells the end for New Jersey’s decades-long interference with the peoples’ fundamental right of self-defense with a firearm outside the home.”
Gun rights groups already are challenging New Jersey’s right-to-carry laws in courts, as well as the magazine limit. Those cases are pending.
The New York law struck down Thursday, in place since 1913, said that to carry a handgun outside the home, a person applying for a license had to demonstrate “proper cause,” an actual need to carry the weapon.
The law doesn’t define what proper cause means and gave local officials — often a police department or town justice — discretion when deciding whether to issue licenses. In practice, it meant most applicants had to show a need that went beyond routine public safety concerns, like being in a profession that put them at special risk.
Lawmakers could add new permitting conditions now that the court has ruled, such as requiring firearm training or a mental health evaluation, or disqualifying applicants with certain types of criminal convictions.
Lawmakers also could pass a law specifying where people can’t carry concealed weapons — a list that could include public transit systems, school zones, bars, parks, government offices or polling places.
Supporters of New York’s handgun limits have said one of their fears is that by creating a marketplace for handguns that now barely exists in the state, it will lead to more pistols getting into the hands of prohibited buyers.
The state attorney general’s office said there are similarities between Rhode Island's law and the one in New York that was struck down, but also important differences between the two states’ statutory schemes for concealed carry permits.
Rhode Island has separate laws dealing with permits issued from municipalities and permits issued from the state attorney general’s office. In 2018, the office filed an amicus brief in a case to defend the constitutionality of a Massachusetts gun law, noting that Rhode Island’s concealed carry permit has been upheld by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The court found that the state constitutional right to keep and bear arms is an individual right, subject to reasonable regulation by the state.
The attorney general and governor’s offices said they would review the Supreme Court decision for its impacts on the state. The Rhode Island 2nd Amendment Coalition did not immediately respond to requests for comment about whether it would seek to challenge the permitting process in Rhode Island.
Any response from the legislature would likely have to wait until next year, but Democratic state Rep. Robert Craven said Thursday he wasn’t surprised by the ruling.
“I see the court headed in that direction,” he said. “It’s taking a stricter interpretation that the Second Amendment is absolute -- It says what it says, you have a right to bear arms.”
Craven, an attorney and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, questioned whether the court will now use that same thought process for cases about banning military-style weapons.
Associated Press writers Mike Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey; Jennifer Kelleher in Honolulu; Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island; Alanna Durkin Richer and Steve LeBlanc in Boston; Don Thompson in Sacramento, California; Marina Villeneuve in Albany, New York; and Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland, contributed to this report.
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