NEW YORK — Today, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Corlett, arguing that restrictions on guns in public spaces are appropriate to make public spaces safe for democratic participation, including First Amendment activity such as assembly, association, and speech. While the case directly addresses the Second Amendment, the NYCLU and ACLU argue that concerns about speech and assembly justify regulating public carrying of guns.
Strict regulations of public carry, both open and concealed, have been common measures throughout American history as a way of maintaining the peace and safety of public places. The brief argues that states have an important interest in making public spaces safe in order to facilitate public debate, and that state and local governments have long enforced this interest through regulating the public carrying of weapons.
“For centuries, restrictions on concealed weapons have been an important part of maintaining the peace in which social, civic, and economic life thrive,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Where the internet, television, and other media can devolve into echo chambers, there is no substitute for the exchange of ideas in the physical public square. Rolling back reasonable regulations on the carrying of weapons would erode speech, assembly, protest and other First Amendment activities vital to our democracy.”
New York’s restriction on public carry serves the state’s profound constitutional commitment to free expression — one that exceeds the United States Constitution and has made the state a cultural center for the nation and the world.
“Like most other rights, the Second Amendment is not absolute, and there are important First Amendment interests at stake when it comes to the carrying of guns in public,” said ACLU Legal Director David Cole. “The widespread and unregulated presence of guns in public spaces can chill our rights to assemble, protest, and speak out, and states are justified in regulating public carry to help promote trust that all will be free to exercise their right to free expression without worrying about getting shot.”
Like so many other laws in our country, some gun restrictions were historically enacted and targeted disproportionately against Black people. Before the Civil War, some states prohibited Black people, both free and enslaved, from possessing guns. At the same time, some states permitted white men to bear arms openly. While those discriminatory restriction laws would not be upheld today, the brief argues that across-the-board restrictions on open and concealed public carry have long been applied universally to all persons, and are an important means to maintain safety and peace in public spaces and help curb threats of violence against protestors.
The brief recounts multiple incidents in the past year in which guns at demonstrations led to threats of and actual violence. For example, on Aug. 29, 2020, a Black Lives Matter protest in Tallahassee, Florida was disrupted when a counter-protestor pulled out a handgun. The counter-protestor argued with some of the 150 protestors and subsequently raised a gun at multiple protestors, inducing panic. The counter-protestor had a valid concealed carry permit at the time of the incident.
A study conducted by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund found that armed demonstrations are more than six times as likely to escalate into violence compared to unarmed demonstrations.
The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in this case on November 3.
The ACLU and NYCLU amicus brief is here: