The Supreme Court took America a step backwards on gun safety just as Congress was finally about to act

Some time later, in response to a spate of mass shootings across the United States, the Senate will vote on the first major gun control bill in nearly three decades.

This morning the Supreme Court attempted to make this whole effort near a contentious point.

In a 6-3 decision authored by Judge Clarence Thomas, the court not only enshrined a constitutional right to carry guns outside the home in “self-defense,” but may have made it far more difficult for states to regulate gun rights. In fact, the Court has placed the Second Amendment in the same thin air as the First Amendment. It is very likely that many more Americans will die as a result.

The court was concerned with a New York state law that requires people who want to carry a gun in public to show “proper reason.” To date, New York residents seeking such a right have had to show that they have a legitimate need for it. In Thomas’ opinion, he argued that this centuries-old New York law violates the constitutional right to own and bear arms. Or, in layman’s terms, he argues that Second Amendment individual rights trump government efforts to protect Americans from gun violence.

Six states (California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island) have laws similar to New York’s – all of which are likely to be overturned by federal courts after today’s decision.

However, Thomas’ opinion does more than just slam down tough licensing laws governing the carrying of handguns in public — it creates a whole new set of gun rights. Previously, in 2008, the Court of Justice ruled in the Brighter Decision that there is a constitutional right to keep and carry guns at home.

In today’s ruling, Thomas asserts, “Nothing in the Second Amendment text distinguishes between home and public in relation to the right to own and bear arms.” He is essentially saying that the right to bear a gun in public is identical to the right to have a gun in one’s own home.

What is so striking — and pernicious — about Thomas’ opinion is that it largely deprives state officials of the ability to consider the societal implications and inherent dangers of increasing gun ownership. “Instead,” Thomas says, “the government needs to corroborate that its firearms regulation is part of the historical tradition that delineates the outer limits of the right to own and bear firearms.”

“In short, it’s going to be like the Wild West on American roads, and a Supreme Court majority is totally in agreement with that.”

As Judge Stephen Breyer noted in his dissent, “Many states have attempted to address some of the dangers of gun violence … by enacting laws that restrict in various ways who may purchase, carry, or use firearms of various kinds.” Breyer added: “The Court today places a significant burden on States’ efforts to do so.”

Even if a state could present evidence that allowing Americans to carry guns in public increases the dangers to ordinary citizens, Justice Thomas says that is irrelevant if there is no historical tradition establishing a state’s right to enact such regulations. According to Thomas, history and textual interpretation are the only considerations states can consider when passing gun laws — not public safety and not the specific contexts in which Americans live and work.

In a densely populated urban environment like New York City, an unrestricted right to carry handguns will almost certainly lead to more gun violence and more deaths. As New York City officials have repeatedly warned, a negative ruling from the court would have the potential to turn minor disagreements into major escalations. As a New York resident, the thought of arguments over parking lots or subway seats or the better New York sports team run by people who carry legally loaded guns is enough to make me never want to leave my home want.

In short, it’s going to be like the Wild West on American roads, and a Supreme Court majority is totally in agreement with that.

Aside from the public safety court’s disturbing disdain, what is even more disturbing about this decision is its disdain for the views and preferences of the American people.

Courts, of course, must make legal decisions based on the law, which sometimes means making decisions opposed by a majority of Americans. But no court can simply turn a blind eye to public opinion, especially if it wants to maintain its perceived legitimacy in the eyes of the American people. Gun control polls tell a clear and compelling story—Americans want more, not less. They support background checks for gun purchases, oppose concealed carry laws, and support red flag laws and banning assault rifles. Thomas’ opinion opens the door to legal challenges to virtually all of these gun regulations.

For years, conservatives have denounced judicial activism. The court, which is challenging a wide array of gun control regulations passed by elected state legislatures, is effectively the definition of judicial activism.

With this decision, the conservative majority in the court has shown once again that it simply doesn’t care about its legitimacy. They have the votes and they will exercise them however they want, regardless of public opinion, public safety, common sense and the law itself.

As bad as the court’s decision on guns will be for the country, this is just a preview of what’s to come. We may be just days away from the conservative majority of the court overturning federal abortion rights. The government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions could also be wiped out.

The Supreme Court’s efforts to bend the arc of history back into the past are only just beginning. The Supreme Court took America a step backwards on gun safety just as Congress was finally about to act


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