WASHINGTON — In a momentous day for gun laws in the United States, the conservative-majority Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling expanding the scope of gun rights, shortly before the Senate advanced the first major gun violence prevention bill in nearly 30 years.
The 6-3 ruling Thursday struck down a New York law and found a constitutional right to carry a gun outside the home, splitting the court along ideological lines, with all the Republican appointees in the majority and the Democratic appointees dissenting.
Shortly after, the evenly split Senate voted 65-34 to advance a modest set of gun restrictions, including enhanced background checks, closing the "boyfriend loophole" for domestic abusers and state-based grants to implement crisis prevention programs or "red flag" laws designed to keep guns away from dangerous people.
The swift reactions highlighted the sharp contrast that persists between the two parties on gun laws, with Democrats loudly excoriating the justices as conservative "activists" imposing a policy agenda, as Republicans — most of whom oppose the Senate bill — hailed the decision as a victory for Second Amendment rights.
For advocates of new laws to combat mass shootings, the sting of the court's ruling dulled the impending achievement of the Senate bill, which is slated for final passage by the end of the week.
“With this opinion, the conservative justices on the Supreme Court have knowingly chosen to increase gun violence in the United States, putting us all at a higher risk of gun injury or death,” said Igor Volsky, founder of Guns Down America, which advocates for fewer firearms in the U.S. “It’s striking that this decision comes as the Senate makes historic progress on gun violence prevention legislation and underscores how much more we have to do in order to build safer communities for us all.”
Volsky argued that the court majority's history-based test for the validity of gun regulations could open the door to "throwing out all these prohibitions," including the closure of the boyfriend loophole.
Republicans praise gun ruling
Meanwhile, top Republicans celebrated the court's decision.
“Today’s ruling rightfully ensures the right of all law-abiding Americans to defend themselves without unnecessary government interference,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who opposes the Senate gun legislation and is vying to become speaker next year.
Donald Trump Jr. attributed the outcome to his father's three right-leaning Supreme Court nominees as president.
Democrats said they'll highlight the contrast on the campaign trail.
“Voters want stronger gun laws and safer communities. The only people who don’t are Republicans in Congress, the gun lobby and, apparently, the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic consultant. “After Uvalde, Buffalo and other tragedies, Republicans in battleground states have to explain why they want more guns flooding our streets and more shootings in places that should be safe.”
But some Republican strategists said the passage of the Senate bill is likely to blunt the political energy Democrats hope to tap into by running against the Supreme Court’s gun ruling.
“They’re going to have a hard time selling that while Chris Murphy is out there bragging about the first bipartisan law in a generation,” said Matt Gorman, a GOP consultant and former campaign aide, referring to the Connecticut senator and co-author of the bill.
'Activist Supreme Court'
Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice and a former Senate Democratic leadership aide, said the ruling is “a stark reminder that no amount of legislative maneuvering will be enough” to address gun violence as long as Republicans control the court.
He called on Democrats to make the court a campaign issue, citing a poll by Hart Research Associates that found voters in Senate battleground states oppose, by a 21-point margin, court rulings that overturn state gun limits and let more people carry guns in public.
Fallon in a statement also pushed Democrats to “embrace calls to expand the Court” by adding seats, or they’d be “accepting a future where an out-of-touch Supreme Court has made it functionally impossible to take the action needed to prevent gun violence.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., tore into the gun decision as a result of an “activist Supreme Court” that is undermining states’ rights on firearm laws even as its leaked draft decision that would overrule Roe v. Wade purports to protect the rights of states when it comes to abortion.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said in a statement the gun ruling is "the product of a generations-long right-wing effort to alter the Court," saying the current court is "led by conservative judicial activists who twist Constitutional analysis to substitute their own policy preferences for laws passed by Congress or the states."
And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., slammed the “extremist, right-wing Roberts Court” in a statement for issuing a “far out-of-the-mainstream and dangerous decision that flies in the face of overwhelming public support for rational gun safety measures.”
'A watershed win'
The most enthusiastic praise of the court's ruling came from Republicans who oppose the Senate gun bill, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who had led a brief joined by 24 Senate GOP colleagues calling on the court to overturn New York’s gun law.
"This case’s vindication of the right to carry a firearm for self-defense outside the home is an ever-present reminder of our duty as citizens to defend our constitutional rights from brazen attacks from the left," Cruz said in a statement.
Among the signatories on Cruz's brief were senators who voted to assemble the conservative Supreme Court majority but favor the bipartisan bill to toughen gun laws — including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as well as the party's two main negotiators on the gun bill, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
The votes of those three Republicans for the gun bill was a blow to the National Rifle Association, which came out against it and seldom loses a vote in the U.S. Senate. But the Supreme Court gave the gun-rights organization plenty to be happy about.
"Today’s ruling is a watershed win for good men and women all across America and is the result of a decades-long fight the NRA has led," Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, said in a statement.