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Nation & World

The U.S. Supreme Court Seems Headed For A Major Decision On Gun Rights

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For the first time in a decade, the U.S. Supreme Court seems headed for a major decision on gun rights. Today the court agreed to take up a case testing how much a state may regulate carrying a gun outside the home. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has more.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: More than a decade ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment right to bear arms guarantees the right to own a gun in one's home for self-defense. But since then, despite repeated pleas from gun rights advocates and some members of the high court itself, the court majority has declined to make any further decisions about how far the states may go in regulating gun rights. Now, however, the court will review a New York law that requires individuals to get a license to carry a concealed gun outside the home.

The licenses are restricted to those going hunting or to target practice and those who can demonstrate a need for self-protection, like a bank messenger carrying money. Those challenging the law contend that any law-abiding citizen should be able to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon outside the home.

New York is one of just eight states that limit the concealed carrying of guns, but many of those states have huge populations. Indeed, they account for some 90 million people. Research indicates that if concealed-carry permits were easy to get, roughly 10% of adults in those states would likely be carrying guns. In Los Angeles County, for instance, with a population of 10 million people, estimates are that some 800,000 would get permits to carry concealed firearms in contrast to the fewer than 500 people who do right now.

JACOB CHARLES: This is really the next frontier in Second Amendment cases.

TOTENBERG: Jacob Charles, executive director of the Center for Firearms Law at Duke law school, says the court will likely be moving gun rights beyond the home.

CHARLES: Do you get to bring it anywhere? Are there restrictions on where you can bring it, and what kind of authority do states have to make that carrying contingent on things like background checks, training requirements?

TOTENBERG: The court's 2008 landmark gun rights decision was by a 5-4 vote. And with the addition of three Trump appointees, the court's current 6-3 conservative majority is likely to give gun rights advocates plenty of running room. Indeed, even without the chief justice's vote, there would likely be five conservatives willing to dismantle many of the nation's gun regulations.

The court will not hear the gun case until next term. Today it began hearing the last full week of arguments for this term. Front and center was a case involving rich activists and their anonymous donations to tax-exempt charitable organizations. At issue was a California law, similar to laws in some other states, that require tax-exempt nonprofits to file with the state a confidential list of their large donors - a copy, in fact, of the list that they file annually with the IRS.

The state maintains that the information is needed to ferret out fraud and self-dealing in charitable organizations. The Americans for Prosperity foundation, backed by the conservative Koch brothers, refused to comply with the state law, contending that it would violate their First Amendment right to freedom of association and that it would subject them to harassment from those who disagree with their political views. The case is seen as particularly important because if the court rules for the donors, it could cast a cloud of doubt over public disclosure requirements for campaign contributions and contributors. Justice Breyer focused on that question today.

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STEPHEN BREYER: I'd like to know what you think of the argument raised in several of the amicus briefs, anyway, that this case is really a stalking horse for campaign finance disclosure laws. What's the difference?

TOTENBERG: There were no good answers to that question, nor were there great answers when several justices noted that California had initially, though inadvertently, experienced computer problems with keeping the donor lists secret. Though the lower court later found the state had fixed the problem, Justice Alito asked this question.

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SAMUEL ALITO: Do you doubt that donors to organizations that take unpopular positions on hot-button issues have reason to fear reprisals if those donations are made public?

TOTENBERG: There were lots of similar questions from the court's conservatives, and even the liberals seemed to have concerns. With all those doubts in the air, Justice Kavanaugh introduced yet another potential problem when questioning Americans for Prosperity lawyer Derek Shaffer.

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BRETT KAVANAUGH: Do you agree that what the IRS is doing is constitutional?

DEREK SHAFFER: It's a different case, Justice Kavanaugh, that we have not brought.

TOTENBERG: In short, Shaffer dodged the question.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAUTIOUS CLAY SONG, "COLD WAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.