Supreme Court Issues Major Second Amendment Ruling in NDNY-Originating Case

By Allison Magnarelli, J.D. Candidate 2023, Albany Law School

This past June, the United States Supreme Court decided a constitutional challenge to a New York State firearms law in the case of New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n Inc. v. Bruen, 142 S. Ct. 2111 (2022) (“NYSRPA”). The law had required that an applicant for a license to carry a concealed handgun outside of the home show that “proper cause exists for the issuance thereof.” N.Y. Penal Law § 400.00(2)(f). The “proper cause” requirement was satisfied when applicants demonstrated a “special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community.” See, e.g., Klenosky v. New York City Police Dep’t, 428 N.Y.S.2d 256, 257 (1st Dept. 1980). On June 23, the Supreme Court issued its decision in NYSRPA, holding that New York State’s proper-cause requirement for obtaining a license to carry a concealed firearm violated the Fourteenth Amendment in that it prevented law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

Plaintiffs N.Y. State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n (“NYSRPA”), Robert Nash, and Brandon Koch had sued the Rensselaer County Licensing Officer, the then-Superintendent of the New York State Police George P. Beach II,[1] and New York State Supreme Court Justice Richard J. McNally, Jr.  Plaintiffs claimed that Defendants Beach and McNally violated Plaintiffs Nash’s and Koch’s Second Amendment rights when those Defendants refused to grant them licenses to carry a firearm outside the home for self-defense. Plaintiffs Nash and Koch were members of NYSRPA, which is organized to support and defend the right of New York State residents to keep and bear arms.

Plaintiffs Nash and Koch had been granted a license to carry a handgun in public, marked “Hunting & Target,” which disallowed carrying a firearm outside the home for the purpose of self-defense. Plaintiffs Nash and Koch requested that Defendant McNally remove the “hunting and target” restrictions from their licenses and issue new licenses allowing them to carry firearms for self-defense.  Defendant McNally denied both requests because plaintiffs Nash and Koch “failed to show ‘proper cause’ to carry a firearm in public for the purpose of self-defense, because [they] did not demonstrate a special need for self-defense that distinguished [them] from the general public.” N.Y. State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n v. Beach, 354 F. Supp. 3d 143, 146 (N.D.N.Y 2018).  Plaintiffs sued.

Both the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York and the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found no constitutional violation and dismissed the lawsuit, relying on established precedent, including the Second Circuit’s prior decision in Kachalsky v. County of Westchester, 701 F.3d 81 (2d Cir. 2012), which had held that “New York’s handgun licensing scheme . . . requiring an applicant to demonstrate ‘proper cause’ to obtain a license to carry a concealed handgun in public” did not violate the Second Amendment. Kachalsky, 701 F.3d at 83, 100-01. That decision had sustained New York State’s proper-cause standard, holding that the requirement was “substantially related to the achievement of an important governmental interest.” Id. at 96.

In an opinion written by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court overruled the Second Circuit’s decision and held that the Second and Fourteenth Amendments protect an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside of the home. NYSRPA, 142 S. Ct. at 2122.  In doing so, Justice Thomas relied on the Court’s two major gun rights cases, Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, explaining that, in those cases, the Court had “recognized that the Second and Fourteenth Amendments protect the right of an ordinary, law-abiding citizen to possess a handgun in the home for self-defense.” Id.  Justice Thomas stated that the Second Amendment draws no distinction between the right to keep and bear arms in the home versus in public, and the natural definition of “bear” encompasses public carry.  Id. at 2134.

Justice Breyer wrote a dissent joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan. They began by citing statistics reporting an increase in mass shootings and argued that the majority was placing a heavy burden on states that strive to address serious dangers of gun violence through laws that limit those who may purchase, carry, or use firearms of various kinds. Id. at 2163. They further criticized their colleagues for making their decision without any evidentiary record and relying almost exclusively on history. Id. at 2164.

On August 19, 2022, members of the Second Circuit panel that had heard NYSRPA on direct appeal issued an order to the District Court (Sannes, C.J.), stating that Plaintiffs’ lawsuit had been reinstated and remanding the lawsuit to the District Court for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision.

New York State’s Governor and legislature responded to NYSRPA by passing and enacting the Concealed Carry Improvement Act (“CCIA”) on July 1, 2022, which took effect on September 1, 2022.  2022 N.Y. Sess. Laws ch. 371.  In general, the CCIA replaced the “proper cause” standard with (1) a definition of “good moral character” that was required in order to complete the license application or renewal process, (2) the requirement of an in-person interview, social-media-account disclosure and review, at least four “character references” and additional hours of required in-person firearm training in order to complete the license application or renewal process, and (3) a list of “sensitive locations” and “restricted locations” where carrying arms is prohibited.  Id.

The CCIA recently survived an initial challenge in federal court in Antonyuk v. Bruen, 1:22-cv-0734, 2022 WL 3999791 (N.D.N.Y. Aug. 31, 2022) (Suddaby, J.), in which the Court denied a motion for a preliminary injunction because the plaintiffs lacked standing.

NYSRPA was the second case from the Northern District of New York that has been heard by the Supreme Court within the last three years.  The other case, which had also originated from Rensselaer County, was McDonough v. Smith, 139 S. Ct. 2149 (2019).  That case, discussed in a prior issue of this newsletter, addressed the statute of limitations governing a fabrication-of-evidence claim brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

[1] The current Superintendent is Kevin P. Bruen.