top of page

Navigating the Tightrope: Gun Control Challenges Within the Bounds of the Second Amendment

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants all citizens the right to bear arms, but at what point does this constitutional right become a threat to U.S. national security? In 2021, gun violence claimed the lives of nearly 49,000 individuals in the U.S. This figure has risen by 23% since 2019 and the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is evidenced by these statistics that gun violence is escalating. U.S. mass shootings, defined as three or more people killed with the perpetrator using a firearm and open-firing in a populated area, are no longer rare occurrences. They have been normalised as consistent events, creating pressure on lawmakers to prioritise stricter gun control measures.


However, opponents argue that gun control legislation infringes upon their Second Amendment rights, asserting their "right to bear arms". They contend that the passage of gun control legislation undermines the protections enshrined in the Second Amendment.


This is evident in the case of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen (2021). The focus of this case regards the constitutionality of New York’s concealed carry licence regulations, specifically the requirement for applicants to demonstrate “proper cause” to obtain a concealed carry permit. This prerequisite implies that applicants must provide evidence that they require additional protection beyond what the general public necessitates, hence justifying their need to carry a firearm in public. This attempt by New York legislators to implement more stringent gun control laws underscores the significance of issues caused by gun violence. It has compelled them to devise methods to curtail gun-related deaths, diminish the occurrence of mass shootings, and reduce the alarming 50% increase in firearm-related fatalities among children and teenagers since 2021.


The New York State Rifle and Pistol Association (NYSRPA), along with other individual plaintiffs, contend that New York’s Concealed Carry law infringes on their Second Amendment rights. They argue that this law imposes unwarranted restrictions on their ability to carry firearms outside their residences. Additionally, the plaintiffs assert that the requirement for applicants to demonstrate “proper cause” encroaches upon their constitutional rights, as the state’s interpretation and application of this requirement grant government officials excessive discretion to deny permits.


In October 2021, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Second Amendment case. In a six-to-three decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the New York Concealed Carry law violated the Second Amendment. In a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas, declared the law unconstitutional under the Second Amendment due to the issuance of licences on a “may-issue” basis, which grants governmental authorities on a state level the power to deny citizens access to firearms. This denial was viewed as an indirect contravention of citizens’ right to keep and bear arms as outlined in the U.S. Constitution.


Historically, courts have applied intermediate scrutiny to assess the constitutionality of gun restrictions, as reflected in the case of Kachalsky v. County of Westchester (2012). Under intermediate scrutiny, courts must determine whether a law serves a significant government interest and whether it does so through means that are substantially related to that objective. This same question arose in the case of New York’s handgun licensing law. While the plaintiffs argued that the “proper cause” requirement was overly restrictive and impeded their ability to carry handguns for self-defence, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the New York law. The court maintained that the law did not violate the Second Amendment since the state had a significant interest in regulating the public carrying of firearms. Moreover, they reasoned that the “proper cause” requirement constituted a reasonable restriction that did not excessively burden law-abiding citizens.


If the Supreme Court applied intermediate scrutiny to evaluate the constitutionality of the New York law, it would likely be considered constitutional. This law aims to advance an important government interest in reducing gun violence fatalities, and it directly relates to this government objective. However, the Supreme Court rejected the use of intermediate scrutiny. Instead, it asserted that if the government intends to impose restrictions on firearms, it must demonstrate that these regulations align with historical practices and limitations. This requirement ensures that the regulations do not infringe upon the fundamental principles of the Second Amendment. The boundaries for the right to keep and bear arms are established by historical tradition, and any government regulations must remain within this scope to be considered constitutional under the Second Amendment.


The Supreme Court’s ruling that the New York law is unconstitutional presents a stark contrast to the prevailing reality of gun violence in the U.S. The inability to take federal action to amend gun laws and implement stricter regulations to prevent firearm-related fatalities presents a precarious situation for the U.S.


In the year 2022, the U.S. experienced a total of 647 mass shootings, whereas the UK has only witnessed seven since 1996. This stark contrast begs the question: what factors contribute to such a striking divergence in gun-related fatalities?


Following the tragic Dunblane shooting in 1996, which claimed the lives of 17 individuals, the UK swiftly enacted stringent gun control laws. Three months after the shooting, approximately 23,000 guns had been voluntarily surrendered. Similarly, after a shooting in 2003, an additional 43,000 guns were turned in. Moreover, after these events the UK passed legislation to regulate gun ownership, first in 1997 and then in 2010. These pieces of legislation established a thorough application process for obtaining a gun licence. This process mandates the provision of a compelling justification for firearm possession while ensuring that applicants do not pose a threat to public safety or themselves.


Conversely, the U.S. faced a similar tragedy with the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, which resulted in the loss of 28 lives, including that of the shooter, 20 of which were children. However, despite concerted efforts to enact legislation, substantial gun control measures failed to materialise at the federal level. Although bills were introduced into Congress and subjected to voting procedures, they ultimately did not garner the necessary approval in Congress and failed to pass. Although some states have been able to pass their gun control laws, such measures have proven insufficient in effectively alleviating the profound toll inflicted by gun violence across the nation. This violence has even gotten worse as U.S. politics become more polarising, and legislators are less likely to have greater laws and regulations that their supporters are against.


At what point does the Constitution begin to hinder future legislation intended to enhance and adapt to technological advancements, societal progress and cultural reforms? Does the Constitution address the challenges posed by this modern world? How would these significant disparities influence the laws and amendments that the founding fathers considered essential for the U.S. legal system? As technology continues to progress, the need for nuanced laws that account for an evolving technological landscape becomes increasingly evident. The call to amend the Constitution extends to every facet of society, and it is now more crucial than ever for the Supreme Court and legal systems across the U.S. to avoid being entrenched in outdated laws. Instead, they must respond to events such as mass shootings in a manner that adapts to emerging concerns and provides legislation capable of effectively addressing these perilous circumstances.

Comments


bottom of page