Opinion: With gun bill, Supreme Court ruling, nation takes one step forward and many steps backward

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Thursday amounted to a significant if small bit of good news paired with a huge new heaping of bad news.

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With polls showing Americans increasingly support strong new gun reforms after appalling recent mass slaughters at a school in Uvalde, Texas, and a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., events Thursday amounted to a significant if small bit of good news paired with a huge new heaping of bad news.

The good news was that a filibuster-proof supermajority — 65 members — of the evenly split Senate backed legislation that would enhance gun-purchase background checks for would-be buyers aged 18 to 21, likely meaning that juvenile records can be used to determine if a sale was relatively safe. Among other provisions, the bill would also change registration rules for some gun sellers to require more background checks. House approval is a certainty. This bill doesn’t go nearly as far as most Americans want, but 15 Republican senators’ willingness to back it is a welcome sign that Second Amendment absolutism isn’t the GOP default.

Unfortunately, a Supreme Court majority issued a reminder Thursday that it subscribes to such absolutism. In a 6-3 decision, Republican appointees struck down a New York state law that required individuals to demonstrate a special need before being allowed to carry their guns in public. The ruling could also invalidate similar laws in at least six other states, including California.

A short concurring opinion written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh and joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. attempted to create the impression that the majority decision by Justice Clarence Thomas wouldn’t affect less onerous rules on “concealed carry” in place in many other states.


Yet Kavanaugh and Roberts joined in Thomas’ opinion. This wasn’t a concurrence in which they agreed a law was invalid but for reasons different than other justices, a judicial maneuver designed to limit a decision’s scope and impact. Yes, perhaps the two relative moderates will balk at further efforts to make guns even more ubiquitous. But the bottom line here is that they joined in throwing out a state law that past courts thought met constitutional muster. In doing so, they sided with Thomas’ absolutism. Justice Stephen Breyer’s plea that the “severity” of gun violence must be a factor in the court’s reasoning was ignored. More will die as a result.