Supreme Court seems skeptical of New York's strict gun law It's the first major gun case at the court since 2008, when the court ruled that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms grants individuals the right to keep a gun at home for self-defense.


Supreme Court appears skeptical of New York's restrictive gun control law

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At the U.S. Supreme Court today, the conservative majority seemed ready to broaden gun rights by striking down a New York law that limits the right to carry concealed handguns. Some 80 million people live in states that, like New York, limit concealed carry. NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In 2008, the court ruled for the first time that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms guarantees individuals the right to have a gun at home for self-defense. Today, the question was how far state and local governments may go in regulating whether an individual may carry a gun outside the home. At issue was New York's law restricting licenses to carry to people going hunting or shooting, or to those who can demonstrate a special need for self-protection, like a bank messenger carrying cash.

Lawyer Paul Clement, representing the challengers, told the court that the statute is blatantly unconstitutional because it treats the right to bear arms as a privilege, not a constitutional right. He got plenty of pushback from the court's three liberals and some from Chief Justice Roberts. Could a university ban guns from the campus? Clement dodged the question, suggesting that most campuses are open to the public. The chief justice pressed further.


JOHN ROBERTS: What sort of place do you think they could be excluded from? In other words, you can get a permit, but the state can impose certain restrictions - for example, any place in which alcohol is served.


ROBERTS: They say you cannot carry a gun in any place where alcohol is served.

KELLY: Justice Kagan jumped in. What about subways and ballparks? Justice Barrett asked about Times Square on New Year's Eve. Clement demurred, saying that these examples would have to be worked out on a case-by-case basis. Justice Breyer wasn't satisfied.


STEPHEN BREYER: I think that people of good moral character who start drinking a lot and who may be there for a football game or some kind of soccer game can get pretty angry at each other. And if they each have a concealed weapon, who knows? What are we supposed to say, in your opinion, that is going to be clear enough that we will not produce a kind of gun-related chaos?

TOTENBERG: Clement's answer to such questions was this.


CLEMENT: And at the end of the day, I think what it means to give somebody a constitutional right is that they don't have to satisfy a government official that they have a really good need to exercise it or they face atypical risks.

TOTENBERG: But if Clement got pushback, it was nothing like what New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood got. The chief justice pointed to the court's landmark decision in 2008 based on the right to self-defense. And he suggested that having a gun for self-defense may be more important in densely populated areas than it is in rural areas.


ROBERTS: Well, how many muggings take place in the forest?

TOTENBERG: Justice Alito spoke about people who work late at night in Manhattan, people who clean offices, a nurse or an orderly or a dishwasher. And when they walk to a subway or bus stop or walk home, they're scared to death, as he put it, and they apply for a license.


SAMUEL ALITO: They do not get licenses. Is that right?

BARBARA UNDERWOOD: That is, in general, right, yes. If there's nothing particular to them, that's right.

ALITO: How is that consistent with the core right to self-defense, which is protected by the Second Amendment?

TOTENBERG: At the end of the day, there seemed to be little doubt that a conservative majority will strike down New York's law. Only Justice Barrett did not telegraph her view. The unanswered question remains just where the court will allow guns to be banned in the future - the subway, the ballpark places that serve liquor, large protests? That was not clear, and it's entirely possible the Supreme Court won't answer those questions in this case. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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