By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court returns to the divisive issue of gun rights on Wednesday with arguments in a challenge to New York state’s limits on carrying concealed handguns in public – a case that could imperil certain firearms restrictions nationally.
The justices are set to hear an appeal by two gun owners and the New York affiliate of the National Rifle Association, an influential gun rights group closely aligned with Republicans, of a lower court ruling throwing out their challenge to the state’s law, enacted in 1913.
Ahead of the oral arguments, advocates for gun control held a rally outside the courthouse, with victims of gun violence including former Democratic Representative Gabby Giffords speaking about their experiences. Giffords was shot in the head in 2011 at a community meeting in Arizona.
Across the street, a small group of gun rights activists posted signs including one reading, “We stand for the Bill of Rights,” a reference to the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
Lower courts rejected the argument by the plaintiffs that the New York law violates the Second Amendment. The lawsuit seeks an unrestricted right to carry concealed handguns in public.
The court’s 6-3 conservative majority is considered sympathetic to an expansive view of Second Amendment rights.
The case could yield the most important gun rights ruling in more than a decade. The court in 2008 recognized for the first time an individual’s right to keep guns at home for self-defense, and in 2010 applied that right to the states.
New York’s law requires a showing of “proper cause” for carrying concealed handguns. To carry such a weapon without restrictions, applicants must convince a state firearms licensing officer of an actual, rather than speculative, need for self-defense.
Decisions by Justice Richard McNally Jr., a state trial court judge, to deny gun owners Robert Nash and Brandon Koch unrestricted concealed-carry licenses triggered the legal fight. Nash and Koch, along with the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, sued in federal court.
The plaintiffs have argued that the right to self-defense matters most outside the home because that is where the chance of confrontation is highest.
New York has justified its law by arguing that analogous restrictions run from medieval England through the founding of the United States and ever since. The plaintiffs have argued that centuries-old restrictions were limited to dangerous and unusual weapons, not common arms for self-defense like handguns, and that many of America’s founders “carried firearms and supported the right to do so.”
Advocates for gun restrictions fear that the New York case could threaten other state and local measures such as “red flag” laws targeting the firearms of people deemed dangerous by the courts, expanded criminal background checks for gun buyers or restrictions on selling untraceable “ghost” guns.
Eight states including New York empower officials to decide whether people can carry concealed handguns in public even if they pass criteria such as criminal background checks. New York has said that about two-thirds of applications for unrestricted permits are granted in the state, amounting to tens of thousands annually.
Gun rights, held dear by many Americans, are a contentious issue in a nation with high levels of firearms violence. President Joe Biden has called gun violence a “national embarrassment.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling is due by the end of June.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)