New York State has one of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, sharply limiting people’s ability to carry weapons outside their homes.
But questioning from Supreme Court justices this week suggested that the law could soon be declared unconstitutional, upending the way the state regulates firearms at a time when many of its cities are experiencing a crisis of gun violence.
The decision in the case now before the court is not expected for months, and when the justices do rule there is a chance that they will buck expectations and uphold the New York law. It is difficult to predict how exactly their decision will affect New York and a number of other states with similar laws.
But legal experts said that is likely that New York will have to replace its current law with a less restrictive one that would allow more people to carry guns in public.
“We are likely to see New York be forced to rewrite its law,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who specializes in constitutional law and gun policy. “We’ll have to wait until we see the court’s opinion before we know what’s constitutionally permissible.”
The case before the court involves two petitioners from upstate New York, Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, both of whom had sought unrestricted licenses to carry handguns. Both received restricted licenses allowing them to carry firearms for the specific purpose of hunting and target shooting, and Mr. Koch was allowed to carry a gun to and from work.
They were barred from unrestricted licensees because they did not meet New York’s standard of “proper cause,” which requires that a person demonstrate a heightened need to carry a handgun for self-defense.
Their lawyers have argued that the restrictions were straightforwardly unconstitutional based on two relatively recent decisions made by the court that have reframed the way the Second Amendment is interpreted. The court now holds that the amendment protects an individual’s right to have a gun for certain purposes, including self-defense.
Joseph Blocher, a Second Amendment expert at Duke University School of Law, said that a number of different outcomes were possible if the court were to overturn the New York law.
In one scenario, New York could retain a degree of discretion over who receives a license to carry a concealed handgun, but would be compelled to lower its standards, he said. In another, New York and states with similar laws might simply have to grant licenses to carry handguns to all applicants who meet a certain set of yet to be determined criteria, as is true in a number of other states.
New York politicians have expressed considerable concern about the case. On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that it “really worried” him.
“It’s a little surreal that we have justices in Supreme Court suggesting that it would be great to have more and more people armed walking the streets of the city,” he said.
The ruling is expected to come down after Eric Adams replaces Mr. de Blasio as mayor. Mr. Adams, who emphasized public safety as key to the city’s recovery during his campaign, said that limiting the state’s ability to regulate firearms “is a recipe for disaster.”
“We need fewer people carrying guns — not more — and the ability to keep our streets safe preserved, not reversed,” he said in a statement. “If this law is eliminated in New York, police departments in New York City and across the state will have to immediately prepare for more shootings and need additional resources to prevent them.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul said in an interview with NY1 on Thursday that she believed gun owners had rights, “but those rights do not include walking around with a hidden gun.”
“I really hope that Supreme Court sees the wisdom of what we put in place,” she said.
While most guns used in shootings in New York City are not owned legally, research has shown that the vast majority of crime guns are often purchased legally in states with less restrictive laws and smuggled into the city. Iesha Sekou, an anti-violence activist in Harlem, said that weakening gun laws would only make the problem worse.
“Loosening gun restrictions is like pulling the thread out of the sweater,” she said. “It will make the work of gun reform and all of the things we fought for to make guns less available — it will undo that work.”
Understand the Supreme Court’s Momentous Term
The Mississippi abortion case. The court is poised to use a challenge to a Mississippi law that bars most abortions after 15 weeks to undermine and perhaps overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.
A major decision on guns. The justices will consider the constitutionality of a longstanding New York law that imposes strict limits on carrying guns in public. The court has not issued a major Second Amendment ruling in more than a decade.
A drop in public support. Chief Justice Roberts now leads a court increasingly associated with partisanship. Recent polls show the court is suffering a distinct drop in public support following a spate of unusual late-night summer rulings in politically charged cases.
In New York City, police officials have expressed concern that illegal guns are increasingly finding their way into the hands of teenagers or being used to target them. Ms. Sekou recalled how, last week, she watched a 17-year-old boy die after he was shot in the chest in Harlem and consoled his mother after she arrived to the scene on West 132nd Street.
“We’re going to see more of young people’s bodies bleeding out on concrete because we have looser gun laws,” she said.
New York’s concealed carry gun law, the Sullivan Act, was first adopted in 1911 in response to a deadly rise in gun violence in public spaces. New York City had experienced a marked increase in homicides and suicides by gun violence at the turn of that decade, and Mayor William Jay Gaynor had been shot in the neck in 1910 in an assassination attempt in New Jersey.
The law is being challenged at a time when cities throughout the state are again wrestling with a rise in gun violence, which arrived with the onset of the pandemic. In New York City, shootings rose to their highest level in a decade, and although they have begun decreasing in recent months, they remain well above prepandemic levels. Cities like Buffalo and Rochester are grappling with similar rises in gun violence.
While lawyers said that New York was likely to pass the strictest gun regulations it could after the justices’ decisions, they said that key questions remained unanswered.
“Where will it be constitutional for the government to say, ‘You can’t bring guns here?’” said Eric Ruben, a professor at Southern Methodist University’s law school and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “At oral argument, it became clear that line-drawing exercise is going to be very challenging.”
Mr. Winkler said that most of the justices had seemed to accept the idea that guns could be limited in sensitive places. He said the state was almost certain to aggressively regulate what constituted a sensitive place.
“No matter what happens in this case, New York is going to continue to try to restrict concealed carry in ways that anger gun rights enthusiasts,” he said. And if that comes to pass, one thing is almost certain, he said: “There’s going to be more litigation in the future.”
Grace Ashford and Jeffery C. Mays contributed reporting.