New York gun case: Breyer says conservative Supreme Court majority 'severely burdens' state firearm rules

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Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said in a dissenting opinion Thursday that the conservative majority "severely burdens" state laws aimed at curbing violence, as the court struck down New York concealed firearm carry restrictions.

"Many States have tried to address some of the dangers of gun violence just described by passing laws that limit, in various ways, who may purchase, carry, or use firearms of different kinds," Breyer wrote. "The Court today severely burdens States’ efforts to do so."

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Breyer in his dissent in the 6-3 case. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsich, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas made up the majority.

Justice Stephen Breyer Thursday criticized the Republican majority for striking down a New York gun law, arguing that it will restrict states' ability to fight gun violence. <span class="copyright">REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque</span>
Justice Stephen Breyer Thursday criticized the Republican majority for striking down a New York gun law, arguing that it will restrict states' ability to fight gun violence. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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Thomas delivered the court's majority opinion, arguing that "the Second and Fourteenth Amendments protect an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home." The New York law required an applicant to show "proper cause" for seeking a license, but the majority struck that down.

"Because the State of New York issues public-carry licenses only when an applicant demonstrates a special need for self-defense, we conclude that the State’s licensing regime violates the Constitution," Thomas wrote.

However, Breyer said the U.S. deals with a massive amount of gun crimes, and that it is the domain of state legislatures to address that even if there are many lawful uses for firearms.

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"The question before us concerns the extent to which the Second Amendment prevents democratically elected officials from enacting laws to address the serious problem of gun violence," he said. "And yet the Court today purports to answer that question without discussing the nature or severity of that problem."

"Balancing… lawful uses against the dangers of firearms is primarily the responsibility of elected bodies, such as legislatures," Breyer added. "It requires consideration of facts, statistics, expert opinions, predictive judgments, relevant values, and a host of other circumstances, which together make decisions about how, when, and where to regulate guns more appropriately legislative work."

Breyer, in his opinion, also criticizes a history-based approach taken by the majority, and argues that "legal restrictions on the public carriage of firearms" are not uncommon. Breyer also says the unique circumstances in major cities like New York City necessitate lawmakers to consider where it is or is not practical to allow guns.

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"The historical examples of regulations similar to New York’s licensing regime are legion," Breyer said. "Not all of these laws were identical to New York’s, but that is inevitable in an analysis that demands examination of seven centuries of history. At a minimum, the laws I have recounted resembled New York’s law, similarly restricting the right to publicly carry weapons and serving roughly similar purposes."

Even under the 2008 Heller case that gives individuals a right to own firearms, Breyer said, there can be legitimate government regulations on that right.

"We are bound by Heller insofar as Heller interpreted the Second Amendment to protect an individual right to possess a firearm for self-defense," Breyer said. "But Heller recognized that that right was not without limits and could appropriately be subject to government regulation."

In a concurring opinion, Alito criticized Breyer for focusing so much on gun violence statistics, including mass shootings.

"What legitimate purpose can possibly be served by most of the dissent’s lengthy introductory section. Why, for example, does the dissent think it is relevant to recount the mass shootings that have occurred in recent years? Does the dissent think that laws like New York’s prevent or deter such atrocities? Will a person bent on carrying out a mass shooting be stopped if he knows that it is illegal to carry a handgun outside the home?" Aliso wrote.

"And how does the dissent account for the fact that one of the mass shootings near the top of its list took place in Buffalo?" he continued. "The New York law at issue in this case obviously did not stop that perpetrator. What is the relevance of statistics about the use of guns to commit suicide?"

The case, which will likely be considered a landmark win for gun rights advocates, comes as Congress is likely to pass a bipartisan gun safety bill in the coming days.

That effort came about in the wake of several mass shootings, including one in Uvalde, Texas, which killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school.

Fox News' Ronn Blitzer and Bill Mears contributed to this report.