[Episcopal News Service] The U.S. Supreme Court on June 23 struck down a 108-year-old New York gun law, siding with a more expansive approach to individual Second Amendment rights in public places while rejecting the narrower interpretation favored by supporters of New York’s law, including Episcopal Church leaders.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, had joined an interfaith group of more than 400 religious leaders in filing a “friend of the court” brief that opposed the challenge to the law, citing the potential increased risk of violence at houses of worship.
Less than a week ago, a man used a handgun to kill three people attending a potluck at an Episcopal church in Alabama. Curry and Jennings alluded to that attack in a joint statement they released in response to the Supreme Court ruling.
“The Supreme Court’s decision today striking down New York’s regulation of the concealed carry of firearms — at a time when our nation is reeling from gun violence — raises grave concerns,” Curry and Jennings said. “We fear this decision will lead to more firearms on our streets and in our communities.”
The case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, focused on New York’s requirement that gun owners show “proper cause” for self-defense before they can receive permits to carry concealed guns in public. Two gun owners, Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, had received licenses to carry guns outside their homes for target shooting and hunting, but they were denied concealed carry permits for failure to show a special need to defend themselves. They joined a gun rights advocacy group in suing to challenge that requirement.
The court’s 6-3 ruling in favor of the two men split along ideological lines, with the six more-conservative justices in the majority and three liberal justices dissenting. They handed down the ruling amid renewed public scrutiny of American gun laws in the wake of recent mass shootings, including the killing of 10 people at a Buffalo, New York, grocery story on May 14 and the killing of 19 students and 2 teachers on May 24 at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
In response to those massacres, a bipartisan group of senators successfully advanced a package of new gun safety legislation this week after years of successful opposition by gun rights groups to any such reforms. The legislation cleared a key procedural hurdle on June 21 and awaits a final vote. Two days after the legislative breakthrough, however, gun safety advocates were dealt a setback in the Supreme Court ruling, penned by Justice Clarence Thomas.
“The Second Amendment guaranteed to ‘all Americans’ the right to bear commonly used arms in public subject to certain reasonable, well-defined restrictions,” Thomas wrote. “We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need.”
The meaning and intent of the Second Amendment, sometimes down to the placement of its punctuation, has been hotly debated in recent decades as gun rights groups, particularly the National Rifle Association, have advocated for fewer limits on individuals’ rights to own and carry firearms. The Second Amendment, ratified in 1791, reads in full: “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.”
New York is one of seven states with “proper cause” requirements, according to the Giffords Law Center, which advocates for stricter gun laws. The other six states are California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey. They are among the 29 states that generally require a permit for gun owners to carry concealed weapons in public, while no permit is necessary in the other 21 states.
The brief supported by Curry and Jennings warned that throwing out the New York law could undermine gun regulations in that state and in other jurisdictions, making it more likely that guns will be brought into churches and other “sensitive places” where guns usually are prohibited.
Other Episcopal clergy were among the signers of the brief, including more than 20 Episcopal bishops who are members of the Bishops United Against Gun Violence network.
“We lament the U.S. Supreme Court’s death-dealing ruling announced this morning in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen,” the bishops wrote in a statement posted June 23 on the network’s website. “Justice Clarence Thomas and the five justices who supported his opinion have failed to recognize that their exceedingly expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment is now eroding many of the freedoms guaranteed by the First.”
The Episcopal Church’s General Convention has passed numerous resolutions over the years calling for tighter gun laws. A General Convention resolution from 1976 supported “federal, state and local legislation aimed at controlling the sale and use of hand guns” and a 2015 resolution urging lawmakers to pass laws requiring permits for citizens to carry concealed weapons. When the 80th General Convention convenes July 8-11 in Baltimore, Maryland, bishops and deputies are set to consider several resolutions related to gun violence, including Resolution B006, advocating passage of state-level gun safety legislation.
The church also has advocated for passage of stricter gun regulations in Congress through its Washington-based Office of Government Relations. On May 26, it issued an action alert through its Episcopal Public Policy Network asking Episcopalians to lobby for passage of gun reforms after the mass shooting in Uvalde.
The new ruling was the Supreme Court’s most significant Second Amendment decision since 2008, when it struck down a handgun ban in Washington, D.C. The 5-4 decision in D.C. v. Heller asserted that the Constitution protects citizens’ right to keep guns in their homes. The court did not rule at that time how far governments could go to regulate guns outside people’s homes.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.