On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal by two petitioners challenging New York’s denial of their applications for concealed-carry firearm licenses. The case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Corlett, represents the first time in more than a decade that the high court will hear a Second Amendment case. Here’s your lawsplainer for the case—and Second Amendment jurisprudence.
The Second Amendment provides: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” In 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court held the Second Amendment protects “the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation.” The Heller decision further held that an individual’s right exists regardless of his service in a militia, reasoning that the “militia” clause served as a prefatory clause, explaining the purpose of the protection contained in the operative clause, but not limiting the individual right.
The court in Heller reached these conclusions after a detailed examination of the origins of the Second Amendment: “Heller explored the right’s origins, noting that the 1689 English Bill of Rights explicitly protected a right to keep arms for self-defense, and that by 1765, [William] Blackstone was able to assert that the right to keep and bear arms was ‘one of the fundamental rights of Englishmen.’”
American colonists shared that view, the Supreme Court concluded, noting that “King George III’s attempt to disarm the colonists in the 1760s and 1770s ‘provoked polemical reactions by Americans invoking their rights as Englishmen to keep arms.’” A thorough examination of the ratification debates and early history of our country confirmed for the Supreme Court that the right to keep and bear arms constitutes a fundamental individual right.
States Must Obey the Constitution Too
Two years after the Supreme Court held in Heller that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms, the high court in McDonald v. City of Chicago held that right “is fully applicable to the States” and state subdivisions, such as counties and cities.
To understand the import of McDonald, one must remember that the Bill of Rights amended the federal Constitution and when those amendments were ratified, they only protected individuals from infringements by the federal government—and more specifically Congress. However, after the Civil War, ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment “fundamentally altered our country’s federal system,” by providing, among other things, that a state may not abridge “the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” or deprive “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”