Federal Appeals Court Upholds New York Gun Licensing Law

The Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller held that the Second Amendment provides an individual right to carry a firearm under certain circumstances, but this right is far from unlimited. As Heller explained, “longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings,” or laws banning “dangerous and unusual weapons” are entirely consistent with the Constitution. Similarly, although Heller established a robust right to gun possession within the confines of the home, it also permitted a wide range of firearm regulation beyond the home’s four walls.

In an opinion upholding a New York law that prevents most people from obtaining a concealed firearm license unless they can demonstrate “a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community or of persons engaged in the same profession,” the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit explained that lawmakers’ power to regulate guns outside the home remains quite robust:

New York’s licensing scheme affects the ability to carry handguns only in public, while the District of Columbia ban [in Heller]applied in the home “where the need for defense of self, family, and property is most acute.” This is a critical difference. The state’s ability to regulate firearms and, for that matter, conduct, is qualitatively different in public than in the home. Heller reinforces this view. In striking D.C.’s handgun ban, the Court stressed that banning usable handguns in the home is a “policy choice[]” that is “off the table,” but that a variety of other regulatory options remain available, including categorical bans on firearm possession in certain public locations . . . .

[W]hile the state’s ability to regulate firearms is circumscribed in the home, “outside the home, firearm rights have always been more limited, because public safety
interests often outweigh individual interests in self-defense.” There is a longstanding tradition of states regulating firearm possession and use in public because of the dangers posed to public safety. During the Founding Era, for instance, many states prohibited the use of firearms on certain occasions and in certain locations.

Though the Second Circuit opinion clearly indicates that firearm regulation outside the home will be subject to more rigorous judicial scrutiny than ordinary economic regulations, it also makes clear that lawmakers have a great deal of discretion in enacting gun laws provided that those laws do not intrude on the core right to self-defense in the home.