As you have no doubt heard the US Supreme Court on April 26, 2021 decided to hear a major gun rights case, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, Inc. v. Corlett. Corlett focuses on the second leg of the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms outside the home. The Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision and its 2010 McDonald decision confirmed the right to keep or possess a functional firearm in the home. Since that time, the federal courts have disagreed concerning the right to possess and carry a firearm outside the home. Federal appellate courts in Illinois and the District of Columbia have held that the Second Amendment extends outside the home sufficiently to allow law-abiding persons to carry handguns for self-protection. Federal appellate courts in the Northeast and on the West Coast have ruled that to the extent the reach of the Second Amendment extends outside the home, the state can limit that right to persons showing a special need. Corlett could resolve this conflict between the federal courts.
The law at issue in Corlett is similar to gun-control measures in several other states such as California, Hawaii, Maryland and New Jersey. To receive a license to carry a concealed firearm outside the home, a person must show “proper cause,” meaning a special need for self-protection distinct from the population at large. Living in a crime infested neighborhood is not considered a “special need” under this and similar statutes of other jurisdictions. Two men challenged the law after a New York judge rejected their concealed-carry applications. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld the law, prompting the challengers to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Currently the vast majority of states allow firearm carry outside the home for personal protection without the requirement to show a special need, or despite having a “good reason” requirement, generally consider self-defense to constitute a good reason to issue a carry permit or license. Delaware is such an example of the latter.
After considering Corlett in three conferences, the justices agreed to hear the case. The Court instructed the parties to brief a slightly narrower question than the challengers had asked them to decide, limiting the issue to whether the state’s denial of the individuals’ applications to carry a gun outside the home for self-defense violated the Second Amendment. Some commentators have expressed concern that this signals that the Court is looking to make the narrowest ruling possible on the law. The case nonetheless has the potential to be a landmark ruling. It will be argued in the fall, with a decision expected sometime next year.
A favorable decision from the Court would likely doom the “may issue” permit licensing schemes followed by the handful of restrictive states such as Maryland, New Jersey and California. This would mean Maryland would likely become a shall issue jurisdiction like its neighbors in DC, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia.
A more far-reaching result of the case may be to resolve how the federal courts evaluate challenges to gun control restrictions in general. Certain of the Justices, most notably Justice Thomas, have previously expressed their concern that the lower federal courts are declining to give appropriate deference to the Second Amendment. The two newest Justices, Barrett and Kavanaugh previously dissented in cases upholding gun restrictions when they were circuit court judges, Justice Kavanaugh in a DC case involving so-called assault weapons restrictions and Justice Barrett in a case challenging the per se prohibition on felons (even non-violent felons) possessing firearms and ammunition. A favorable decision from the Supreme Court on Corlett could clarify what is called the standard of review for Second Amendment cases and possibly serve as a precedent for invalidation of so-called assault weapon prohibition laws and magazine capacity restrictions. The Court has previously declined to hear such cases.
One uncertainty is whether the New York defendants in the case might attempt to moot the controversy by reversing the decision to deny the unrestricted handgun licenses sought by the two individual plaintiffs in the case. In a previous case involving a New York City ordinance that restricted where handgun owners could transport their firearms, the defendants successfully avoided a Supreme Court decision by repealing the offending restriction. It remains to be seen whether New York will try a similar tactic to avoid a decision and whether the Supreme Court will countenance such an artifice.
Arsenal Attorneys is a nationwide law firm headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia. The firm offers services in estate planning, criminal defense, civil litigation, business law, landlord-tenant disputes, real estate, firearms law and more. George Lyon is licensed to practice law in Virginia and the District of Columbia. He was one of the plaintiffs in Palmer v. District of Columbia that forced DC to begin issuing concealed carry licenses and in the US Supreme Court's landmark Second Amendment decision, Heller, which legalized handguns in Washington, DC. Mr. Lyon is licensed by the Metropolitan Police Department to teach the DC Concealed Carry License course including the renewal course and conducts the course monthly. His upcoming class schedule is: May 15-16; June 24-25; and July 17-18. Classes are currently conducted online in light of the continuing COVID 19 health emergency with the shooting portion of the course arranged by appointment. To sign up for his course, contact Mr. Lyon at gll[at]arsenalattorneys.com.