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New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen: Implications of the Two-Step Framework

September 18th 2022 | Allison Li

Edited by Talia Shadroui


Amidst national uproar about Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court has passed down another major decision pushing back against more liberal precedent, this time regarding gun regulation. The decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen (2022) addresses a certain New York concealed carry law, finding that it violates the Second Amendment. This article discusses the reasoning behind this decision, with a particular focus on the two-step framework in addressing Second Amendment challenges.

In late June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff in a Second Amendment case in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen.[1] This case involved petitioners Brandon Koch and Robert Nash, New York residents who applied for unrestricted licenses to publicly carry a handgun for their general self-defense. The respondents, state officials charged with reviewing licensing applications, denied their requests on the basis of failing to show proper cause –– a New York state requirement set in place by the 1911 Sullivan Act.[2] The petitioners sued, alleging that the respondents’ enforcement of the proper cause requirement violated their Second and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The District Court dismissed the complaint and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari, reversed the 2nd Circuit decision, and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the opinion. 

In the two-step framework for evaluating Second Amendment challenges, two tests are utilized: a first test reviews whether the law in question has some precedent in United States history, and a second means-end (i.e., interest-weighing) test allows for the government to use modern research and data to defend its legislation by proving a societal interest.[3] The two-step framework was most famously employed in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), in which the Court recognized for the first time the right of the people to have guns in their homes.[4] However, Heller made clear that the Second Amendment right was “not unlimited”; writing for the majority, Justice Scalia referred to laws prohibiting public concealed carry and imposing restrictions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill as permissible under the Second Amendment. 

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen espouses a drastically different perspective on the same concealed carry laws. Justice Thomas delivered the opinion, joined by his conservative colleagues. Justice Thomas primarily evaluated the constitutionality of the proper cause requirement by referring to Heller’s text-and-history standard –– in other words, whether similar restrictions on public carry were imposed in the past. He concluded that the proper cause requirement failed this standard. 

Notably, he contended that the two-step framework had “one step too many,” consequently dispensing altogether with the second step. It is unclear whether the means-end test may still be used by lower courts, or if all Second Amendment challenges must be henceforth evaluated solely on the text-and-history standard. If the latter, lower courts throughout the country that have utilized the means-end test to uphold gun control legislation will scramble to defend their past decisions with alternate rationales, or be forced to loosen their restrictions on gun possession and use.

Justice Breyer dissented, calling attention to the internationally outstanding figures on mass shootings and gun violence in the United States as well as the illogic of relying solely on tradition for judicial decisionmaking. Regardless of Justice Thomas’s emphasis on the historical record, Justice Alito’s concurrence readily engaged with the dissent on an empirical level. He cited a RAND study in which concealed-carry laws made no difference in violent crime rates, and pointedly questioned, “how does the dissent account for the fact that one of the mass shootings near the top of its list took place in Buffalo?” In addition, he cited several instances in which gun possession was key to an individual’s self-defense.

Perhaps in some locales restrictions on concealed carry licenses do more harm than good. However, the concurrence does not fully address the crux of the argument made by the dissentients. The very fact that some studies point towards the utility of gun control while others portray such legislation as useless supports the idea that gun control should be left in the hands of legislatures. Any legislation on gun possession and use should be carefully crafted in light of the ways social, economic, and political factors affect gun violence in the area, not limited by a court placing sole importance on historical evidence.

Moreover, the implications of the majority’s disdain for the means-end test are far more wide-reaching than Justice Breyer’s overwhelming focus on concealed carry licenses. Abandoning the means-end test could mean that other forms of gun regulation, such as mandatory background checks and bans on high-capacity magazines, must also be found unconstitutional. In essence, the one-step approach that allowed for the striking down of the proper cause requirement also undercuts the very legislation that attempts to limit gun use to the cases of self-defense that gun rights advocates regularly invoke.

Ultimately, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. has wide-reaching implications for states with strict gun control laws. For example, the Ninth Circuit’s 2021 case Young v. Hawaii[5] decided that Hawaii’s statutory requirement for applicants to show “good cause” to obtain licenses to publicly carry firearms did not violate the Second Amendment. This judgment was recently vacated by the present Supreme Court decision. However, Hawaii and other states with Democratic-controlled legislatures, such as California, Maryland, New York, and New Jersey will likely push back with laws limiting the impact of the decision. Indeed, in light of this decision, the state of New York quickly responded with landmark legislation, restricting concealed carry in numerous public spaces including schools, health facilities, transit hubs, and libraries, and expanding disqualifications for gun purchasers.[6] 

Though the decision on one singular restriction in concealed carry licenses may seem relatively inconsequential, the rationale for that decision may unfortunately stretch to all aspects of gun regulation. Furthermore, given the continued Republican-appointed majority, it is unlikely gun regulation will be viewed favorably in the Supreme Court in the near future. For now, gun control advocates must rely on their state legislatures to staunch the bleeding, and continue to push for gun regulation that is as critical to the nation’s safety and well-being as ever.

Allison Li is a senior at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Economics, International Studies, and French.


Sources:

[1] New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, 97 U.S. 1 (2022)

[2] Fitz-Gibbon, Jorge. “Ny Gun Law Shot down by Scotus Spurred by Rise in Gunplay in 1911.” New York Post. New York Post, June 23, 2022. https://nypost.com/2022/06/23/ny-gun-law-shot-down-by-scotus-spurred-by-rise-in-gunplay-in-1911/.

[3] “The Supreme Court Is on the Verge of Expanding Second Amendment Gun Rights.” Brennan Center for Justice, June 28, 2022. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/supreme-court-verge-expanding-second-amendment-gun-rights

[4] District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 22 (2008)

[5] Young v. State of Hawaii, 992 F.3d 765 (2021)

[6] “Governor Hochul Signs Landmark Legislation to Strengthen Gun Laws and Bolster Restrictions on Concealed Carry Weapons in Response to Reckless Supreme Court Decision.” New York State, July 1, 2022. https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-hochul-signs-landmark-legislation-strengthen-gun-laws-and-bolster-restrictions.

Photo Credit: iStock

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