WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the rights of gun owners to carry a loaded weapon in public, ruling that the Second Amendment right to “bear arms” overrides laws in New York and California that restrict who may legally take guns when they leave home.
The court’s conservative majority said in a 6-3 ruling that the Constitution puts these decisions in the hands of gun owners, not with local officials, county sheriffs or others who fear that too many guns on the street are a threat to public safety.
Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said the Constitution’s Second Amendment “protects an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.”
New York, like California, limits who may obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon, but Thomas said such a restriction is unconstitutional because “it prevents law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms.”
The ruling casts legal doubt on some of California’s gun laws, considered among the strictest in the nation.
Some — such as banning guns in certain places or situations, or restricting access to those with criminal records — aren’t likely to be affected by the ruling, which says the government’s ability to ban guns in “sensitive places” is “settled” law.
But limits on carrying weapons outside the home are expected to face legal challenge.
The ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen is the most significant victory for gun rights since 2008, when the justices for the first time ruled the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to have a gun and not just states’ right to maintain a “well-regulated militia.”
It also reflects how President Donald Trump’s three appointees have shifted the court to the right. In the last decade, the court had turned away challenges to the permitting laws in California and elsewhere. But the arrival of Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett created a majority to bolster the right to carry a gun.
Gun control advocates had said they feared a high court ruling upholding the right to be armed in public could lead to a massive increase in the number of guns on the street in major cities.
But the court’s majority stressed that in 43 states, lawful gun owners may carry a firearm in public. Some require a permit, others do not.
However, six blue states require concealed carry permits and only issue them to those who can show a “good cause” or special need to be armed.
The standards differ county by county, depending on the views of top law enforcement officials. In addition to New York and California, permits are required in Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and the District of Columbia.
The decision comes following back-to-back mass shootings last month in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, and as Congress prepares to pass a modest bipartisan gun violence measure, its first in three decades.
The bill would increase background checks for would-be gun buyers aged 18 to 21, and close the “boyfriend” loophole by prohibiting anyone convicted of abuse against a spouse or domestic partner from buying a gun.
In a long dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer highlighted the terrible toll of gun violence in this country.
But Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who was part of the majority, took issue with Breyer’s comments and argued that whether an adult may carry a handgun has little to do the wave of mass shootings. He said that the mass shooting in Buffalo cast doubt on whether New York’s restrictions on handguns were effective.
The case began when two men from upstate New York — Brandon Koch and Robert Nash — applied for a license to carry a concealed gun.
Thomas described them as law-abiding gun owners, but they were turned down. They did, however, obtain a permit to carry a hunting rifle. They then joined a lawsuit to challenge the permit restrictions.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Jon Healey in Los Angeles contributed to this report.