New York State Rifle & Pistol Association (NYSRPA) v. Bruen is an influential Supreme Court case in the field of constitutional law regarding the interpretation of the Second Amendment. The holding in Bruen reaffirms the precedent set in District of Columbia v. Heller, and prohibits the use of “means-end” tests by future courts when evaluating whether firearm restrictions are constitutional.
The controversy in Bruen involved a New York gun control law which required parties interested in obtaining a handgun to first obtain a license. These licenses were for enumerated uses only; and, if a party wanted a license to carry a handgun in public, they were required to show “proper cause” as to why they have a heightened need for self-protection over the general population. Permits were issued on a “may-issue” basis, meaning government officials had the final say as to whether “proper cause” was shown.
This law was challenged in court by two parties who were denied a public carry license after government officials deemed their general desires for self-protection were an insufficient showing of “proper cause” to establish a heightened need.
In an opinion authored by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court held that the New York law was unconstitutional because it issued licenses on a “may-issue” basis rather than a “shall-issue” basis. A “may-issue” licensing system allows a governmental body to deny a citizen a firearm at the government’s discretion, something the Court said directly contradicts the central holding of District of Columbia v. Heller, which states the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to possess arms for the purposes of self-defense.
The Court went on to reject the “two step” analysis many jurisdictions utilized to determine the constitutionality of gun restrictions in cases like Kachalsky v. County of Westchester. This analysis allowed a court to apply intermediate scrutiny, which weighs governmental interest in enforcing the restriction against the burden the restriction places on individuals, if the court determined ambiguity exists regarding whether the restriction was consistent with American history and tradition. In doing so, the Court disavowed the use of all “means-end” tests when interpreting a Second Amendment challenge and stated that if a government wishes to place restrictions on firearm ownership it must “affirmatively prove that its firearms regulation is part of the historical tradition that delimits the outer bounds of the right to keep and bear arms.”
Functionally, Bruen ended the use of scrutiny tests for interpreting the constitutionality of gun control legislation.
In a concurrence, Justice Kavanaugh, joined by Justice Roberts, emphasized that Bruen is not intended to invalidate “shall-issue” licensing structures or other restrictions on firearm ownership including fingerprinting, background checks, mental health evaluations, mandatory training requirements, and potential other requirements. Additionally, this concurrence draws a line between constitutional objective gun control measures, where an individual must pass a set of predetermined requirements, and unconstitutional subjective gun control measures, such as licensing at a state official’s discretion.
Justice Barrett wrote a separate concurrence which joined the opinion in full, but cited two unresolved issues that the court will likely have to tackle in the future. First, Justice Barrett pointed out that in a historical analysis, while the way a law is put into practice after its passing can help illuminate the original meaning of that law when it was passed, it is unclear how long it takes for practice to become divorced from original meaning. As the Bruen opinion calls for the exclusive use of historical context when evaluating the meaning of the Second Amendment, this lack of a clear line calls into question which parts of history should “count.” Second, her concurrence asks whether a historical analysis for the application of rights which have been incorporated to the states through the 14th Amendment should focus on the understanding of that right when it was first written into the bill of rights or when the 14th Amendment bound the states by that right.
Justice Alito wrote a separate concurrence arguing against the points made in the dissent. In this concurrence, Justice Alito said that the dissents use of statistics and list of recent mass shootings do not concern the constitutionality of the law in question, nor has the law in question been shown to have a meaningful impact on those statistics. Furthermore, Justice Alito posited that even if the problems posed by the aforementioned statistics were relevant to the case at hand, the Bruen opinion states that the dissent’s looser interpretation of the Second Amendment will only make matters worse.
Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Kagan and Justice Sotomayor, dissented on grounds that using a “means-end” test is proper. As evidence, Justice Breyer cited a long list of statistics showing firearm related harm and recent mass shootings to indicate that firearm regulation is a complex issue which is best resolved through democratic state legislatures in tune with their location’s particular circumstances and needs. The dissent further states that the “may-issue” standard applied by New York did not infringe upon the rights of an individual to bear arms for self-protection in practice.
Furthermore, the dissent explains that the majority was incorrect in their reading of Heller to support a history-only approach to Second Amendment challenges. In Breyer’s view, Heller supported both a historical approach and a “means-end” approach when it asserted that DC’s offending gun control law would not pass any level of scrutiny.
Lastly, Justice Breyer questioned the practicality of the majority’s approach to gun regulation. He asserted that courtrooms are not filled with historians and, therefore, questions arise regarding whether they can accurately interpret hundreds of years of American history. Perhaps even more worrying, he explained, the sole focus on history gives judges the opportunity to select which historical data points they analyze in an effort to achieve their desired outcomes.
[Last updated in June of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]