New York had a law that prohibited adults from generally carrying a firearm (including a concealed handgun) upon their person in New York without a state-issued license. These licenses were only issued upon proof of “good moral character” and “proper cause.” This is frequently referred to as a “may issue” licensing scheme, which is not based on objective criteria.
New York courts previously held that applicants only showed proper cause if they could “demonstrate a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community.” In addition, New York courts generally require evidence “of particular threats, attacks or other extraordinary danger to personal safety.”
Petitioners Robert Nash and Brandon Koch applied for unrestricted licenses but were denied because they did not claim any unique danger to their personal safety; they simply wanted to carry a handgun for self-defense. New York issued restricted licenses to Nash and Koch that had limited applications (e.g., hunting and target practice), and they could not carry for self-defense.
Petitioners sought declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging the New York scheme violated their Second and Fourteenth Amendment rights by denying their unrestricted license applications because they had failed to show “proper cause.”
The lower courts dismissed their complaint, relying on a case that previously sustained New York’s proper-cause standard.
The United States Supreme Court decided to review the case and granted certiorari.
Supreme Court Ruling
The Supreme Court decided to apply a single-step test in analyzing whether a law burdens and violates the Second Amendment under a text history and tradition framework.
The Supreme Court standard applied to potential infringements of the Second Amendment; when the Second Amendment’s plain text covers an individual’s conduct, the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct. The government must then justify its regulation by demonstrating that it is consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation. Only then may a court conclude that the individual’s conduct falls outside the Second Amendment.
When using the text and history of the Second Amendment standard, modern regulations must be compared to historical ones. Determining whether a historical regulation is a proper analog for a distinctly modern firearm regulation requires a determination of whether the two regulations are “relevantly similar.” The Hellerand McDonald decisions point toward at least two metrics that can be used when comparing modern regulations to historical ones. First, how and why does the regulation burden a law-abiding citizen’s right to armed self-defense. Second, whether modern and historical regulations impose a comparable burden on the right of armed self-defense. However, this does not mean that courts should uphold every regulation resembling a historical one.