The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that New York’s century-old concealed-carry handgun law violates the Second Amendment, a finding long feared by local officials who viewed the law as a linchpin in efforts to curb the proliferation of pistols on New York City streets.
The 6-to-3 decision, which was the court’s most significant gun-rights ruling in more than a decade, rejected the state’s Sullivan Act, a regulation that limited concealed-carry handgun licenses to New Yorkers with specific self-defense needs.
The court’s conservative majority was widely expected to gut the gun law after hinting at their opposition during oral arguments in the fall. But the decision in the case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, landed a blow to New York Democrats and stirred swift outcry from Brooklyn to Buffalo and beyond.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority on a court remade by President Donald Trump, wrote that the New York law violates the Constitution by preventing “law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms.”
Gov. Hochul, responding minutes after the ruling’s release, called the decision “appalling” and “frightful in its scope.” She said her legal team was poring over the 135-page opinion.
“The language we’re reading is shocking,” the governor said at a news conference in Midtown Manhattan. “It is particularly painful that this came down at this moment, when we’re still dealing with families in pain from mass shootings.”
The decision came 40 days after the bloody massacre in Buffalo, though that shooting was carried out with an assault-style rifle.
Hochul said she intended to call the Legislature to a special session in July to shore up the state’s handgun laws, but she did not immediately set specific dates.
Mayor Adams, who had said for weeks that the Supreme Court’s potential move was keeping him up at night, declared Thursday that the decision made “every single one of us less safe,” and had ignored the “shocking crisis of gun violence” in American cities.
“Today’s Supreme Court decision may have opened an additional river that is going to feed the sea of gun violence in our city and in our nation,” Adams said in a news conference at City Hall.
Still, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said the instant impact in the city would be minimal, noting that the Supreme Court had sent the case back to a lower court for further action.
“If you carry a gun illegally in New York City, you will be arrested,” Sewell said. “Nothing changes today.”
Adams pledged to deploy the full force of the city’s remaining legal powers toward limiting gun violence, and he said the city would be reviewing its definition of so-called sensitive locations, where carrying firearms is banned.
“We cannot allow New York to become the Wild Wild West — that is unacceptable,” Adams said. “Our work begins now.”
Lawmakers will now be operating under judicial edicts from Washington that have significantly expanded constitutional gun rights in the 21st century. In 2008, the Supreme Court held in a landmark decision that Americans have a personal right to possess guns that is baked into the Second Amendment.
That 5-to-4 ruling, in District of Columbia v. Heller, struck down a strict gun-control law in Washington that outlawed possession of handguns at home. The New York ruling went further, extending firearm protections in the public realm.
Two upstate New Yorkers, Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, had challenged the state’s law after unsuccessfully attempting to acquire unrestricted handgun-carry licenses, saying their constitutional right to bear arms had been abridged.
The Supreme Court agreed, and Republican leaders cheered.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, an upstate New York Republican, issued a statement saying that the ruling “correctly declares New York’s shameful attempt to shred Second Amendment rights of New Yorkers unconstitutional.”
And Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Long Island Republican who is running for governor, said in a statement that the decision represented a “historic, proper and necessary victory for law-abiding citizens of New York.”
But a Siena College poll of New Yorkers published last week found about 79% of voters wanted the Supreme Court to uphold the law. The partisan gap was negligible: 82% of New York Democrats said they did not want the court to strike the law, and 79% of Republicans said the same.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in a statement that the decision was “far out of the mainstream and dangerous,” adding that it “flies in the face of overwhelming public support for rational gun safety measures.”
“Now more than ever — especially given today’s awful decision — more must be done to address gun violence, and we Democrats will continue to fight to keep our communities safe,” Schumer said in the statement.
The Supreme Court’s three liberal justices dissented in the case, and two key conservative swing jurists — Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts — joined the majority in a concurring opinion that appeared to limit the sweep of the court’s move.
In the concurring opinion, they said “shall-issue” gun licensing laws in 43 states remain constitutional. Those laws allow people who meet certain criteria to acquire permits.
The concurring opinion left open New York’s abilities to institute licensing laws, as did a footnote in Thomas’ opinion, which said “nothing in our analysis should be interpreted to suggest the unconstitutionality of the 43 states’ ‘shall-issue’ licensing regimes.”
Hochul said her office was “digesting the language” from the court.
“We believe that we have some options on the table, and that’s what we’re pursuing,” Hochul said, but added, “This is a deeply disturbing day. It flies in the face of everything we’ve been trying to do here to protect citizens.”
President Biden said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed,” and that the Supreme Court’s majority opinion “contradicts both common sense and the Constitution, and should deeply trouble us all.”
He urged state legislatures to continue to pass new gun laws.
“For centuries, states have regulated who may purchase or possess weapons, the types of weapons they may use, and the places they may carry those weapons. And the courts have upheld these regulations,” Biden said in the statement.
“I call on Americans across the country to make their voices heard on gun safety,” he added in the statement. “Lives are on the line.”