WASHINGTON — One baby step forward, one giant leap back.
That was the U.S. gun control two-step on Thursday, where the sense of the possibility created by long-awaited congressional action was undercut by the Supreme Court simultaneously rolling back controls long taken for granted.
Can you get U.S. legislators to enact any regulations on guns? Looks like maaaaaybe you can. Can you count on the Supreme Court to uphold those regulations if they’re challenged? Looks like maybe not.
Senators were patting themselves on the back Thursday afternoon after voting to overrule the filibuster to move bipartisan gun safety legislation closer to passing — the bill appeared likely to receive final passage before the weekend. The legislation, coming in response to public outcry after mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y. and Uvalde, TX, was heralded as the most significant gun measures contemplated since the early 1990s.
The measures contained in the bill are modest, to be sure: some tightening of background checks for convicted domestic abusers and those with juvenile criminal records; some encouragement for states to join in “red flag” laws; some funding for mental health and school security; some tightening of regulations on who has to register as a gun dealer. No firearms are banned or restricted, however, and even the much discussed age limits on buying assault-style weapons are off the table.
But — to paraphrase Virginia Woolf paraphrasing Samuel Johnson — U.S. senators legislating gun control is kind of like poodles dancing on their hind legs: it’s not that they do it effectively, it’s that you’re amazed to see them do it at all. The great victory hailed here by U.S. gun control advocates is that something is being done, after years of it seeming like nothing could be done.
Supporters of gun control hailed the measures — not as what they’d hoped for, but as a “first step” that would be “breaking the 26-year logjam that has blocked congressional action to protect Americans from gun violence.”
But even as that bit of progress was moving through the Senate, the U.S. Supreme Court was announcing a decision in a New York state gun control case that rolls the clock back more than a century. The six Republican-appointed justices of the court ruled together (against the Democrat-appointed minority, which dissented) to strike down a law that heavily restricted who can carry a concealed handgun in New York. The law requiring strong justification for a concealed carry permit has been in place since 1911. Striking it down will invalidate it there and apparently will also strike down similar laws in five other states and the District of Columbia — seven jurisdictions that are home to roughly 25 per cent of the U.S. population.
It appears the decision creates a new right, previously unrecognized, for Americans to be allowed to carry a concealed weapon outside of their homes — state lawmakers can no longer require them to show a good reason why they’d need to do so. This is a major expansion of gun rights as they are understood in the U.S. — and it’s fair to say that, by the standards of the rest of the world, the U.S. already had a fairly expansive understanding of gun rights.
It’s a shock and a blow to American leaders such as President Joe Biden, who have been trying to tighten restrictions on guns, not loosen them. “This ruling contradicts both common sense and the Constitution, and should deeply trouble us all,” Biden said in a statement immediately after the ruling. “I call on Americans across the country to make their voices heard on gun safety. Lives are on the line.”
His call goes out to the majority of Americans who tell pollsters they’d like more stringent gun laws. Roughly 59 per cent of American voters think it is either very important or somewhat important for lawmakers to pass stricter gun laws, according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll.
And yet, the Supreme Court decision raises the question of what end “making their voices heard” can serve. Even if, as is happening in the Senate, enough Republican legislators can be brought onside to implement new regulations, and even if a majority of Americans support those regulations, what will it amount to if a majority of Supreme Court justices is set on expanding the rights understood to be guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment?
New York, Massachusetts and California are among the states whose regulations of concealed weapons were struck down on Thursday. Biden urged state lawmakers to draw up new laws.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul called the Supreme Court ruling “reprehensible” and said she’s planning to lead her state’s lawmakers to act immediately. “It could place millions of New Yorkers in harm’s way,” Hochul said. “I’m prepared to call the legislature back to deal with this.”
“Our states and our governors have a moral responsibility to do what we can and have laws that protect our citizens,” Hochul said.
“This is New York. We don’t back down, we fight back,” she added, promising new laws written to conform to the new court opinion while heavily restricting firearms. “Stay tuned. We’re just getting started.”
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: email@example.com