WASHINGTON — A majority of Supreme Court justices seemed inclined Wednesday to rule that the Constitution provides a right to carry a gun outside the home, but willing to allow restrictions on guns in crowded public places.
After two hours of oral argument, the court appeared skeptical of a New York law that requires showing a special need to get a permit for carrying a concealed handgun in public. The court's conservatives suggested they believe the law violates the Second Amendment right to "keep and bear arms."
New York bans carrying a handgun openly. It allows residents to get a license to carry a concealed handgun only if they can demonstrate a requirement that goes beyond a general desire for self-protection. Gun owners in the state sued, saying that makes it virtually impossible for ordinary citizens to get the necessary license.
The court's more liberal members seemed to support the New York law. "I think that people of good moral character, who are drinking a lot and are maybe there for a football game or some kind of soccer game can get pretty angry at each other. And if they each have a concealed weapon, who knows?" Justice Stephen Breyer said.
But Washington, D.C., lawyer Paul Clement, representing the law's challengers, said New York has turned the Second Amendment into a limited privilege, not a right. And several of the court's conservatives seemed to agree.
Chief Justice John Roberts said there's no need to show some special need to invoke other constitutional rights. "The idea that you would need a license to exercise a right is unusual with regard to the Bill of Rights."
He also suggested that the need to carry a gun for self-defense is greater in some cities than in rural areas, where concealed carry permits are generally easier to get. "How many muggings take place in the forest?"
Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked, "Why isn't it enough to say, 'I live in a high-crime area, and I want to defend myself?"
Members of the court on both sides of the issue indicated, however, that they would favor restrictions on taking guns into sensitive or crowded places.
"Can't we just say that Times Square on New Year's Eve is a sensitive place?" Justice Amy Coney Barrett said.
"What about the New York City subways?" Justice Elena Kagan asked.
New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood defended the state law. "The idea of proliferating arms on the subway is exactly what terrorizes people," she said.
But Justice Samuel Alito said the law is unfair to people who work late shifts and must commute home to high-crime areas of the city. "People with illegal guns are walking around, but ordinary people can't be armed?" he asked.
The court repeatedly ducked the issue of the Second Amendment's application in public after ruling in 2008 that it guarantees an individual right to keep a handgun at home for self-defense. A decision in the current case could affect the ability of state and local governments to impose a wide range of firearms regulations.
The two sides differed strongly during Wednesday's argument on the kinds of limitations that were historically allowed because the Supreme Court's landmark 2008 ruling said the Second Amendment does not prohibit long-standing, traditionally accepted regulations of firearms.
All states allow carrying a concealed gun in public, though 34 require a state-issued permit. New York and seven other states provide local officials with more discretion to deny requests for a permit, and they are most likely to be affected by the outcome of the case.
The court will issue its decision by late June.