The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday that it will not review a Second Amendment challenge to a New Jersey law requiring “justifiable need” to carry a handgun outside one’s home.
The court’s denial of certiorari means the New Jersey Handgun Permit Law, which extends a high level of discretion to law enforcement and judges in deciding who may carry handguns in public, is in full force and effect.
The challengers, four individual gun owners denied carry permits and two gun rights groups, had pointed to a split in federal and state courts on whether the right to handgun ownership applies only in the home or extends to public places.
A number of amici had lined up on either side of the issue, including the National Rifle Association, other gun rights groups, members of Congress and states.
Reactions to Monday’s order, in which the Court denied certiorari without explanation, were predictably mixed.
Jonathan Lowy, director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s Legal Action Project, said, “Today’s refusal to hear this case further reaffirms the Supreme Court’s satisfaction with lower courts upholding all gun laws that have been challenged, so long as they allow responsible citizens to keep a gun in the home.”
Scott Bach, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs, a local NRA affiliate, said, “At some point, the question of bearing arms for personal protection outside the home must be addressed.”
The law, N.J.S.A. 2C:58-4, requires permit applicants to get three “reputable persons” of at least three years’ acquaintance to certify to their “good moral character and behavior” and obtain approval from the local police chief.
They must undergo criminal and mental health background checks, which involve checking their fingerprints against federal, state, county and municipal databases, and they must prove thorough familiarity with the safe handling and use of handguns and “justifiable need” to carry one.
Once police approval is obtained, the application goes to the Superior Court, which “shall” issue the permit only if satisfied that the criteria are met.
The statute dates back to 1978, and the “justifiable need” standard even further.
But two U.S. Supreme Court rulings—District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), and McDonald v. Chicago, 130. S. Ct. 3020 (2010)—have spurred fresh challenges to gun restrictions in New Jersey and elsewhere.
Heller struck down D.C.’s outright ban on ownership of handguns while McDonald held the Second Amendment gun ownership protection recognized in Heller applies to the states.
The plaintiffs contended that the law encroaches on the fundamental right to carry handguns for self-defense, that it vests “uncontrolled discretion” in state officials to deny permits, and that the “justifiable need” requirement impinges on Second Amendment rights.
U.S. District Judge William Walls in Newark upheld the law in January 2012.
In July 2013, a split panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, with the majority holding that Heller specifically dealt with individuals’ right to bear arms inside their own homes for self-defense, but whether that right extends beyond the home remains unsettled.
A request for rehearing en banc was denied by an 8-4 vote and the plaintiffs filed their petition to the Supreme Court in January. They pointed out that the federal appellate courts and the top state courts have split on whether Heller applies outside the home.
New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman—whose office is tasked with defending challenges to state laws—urged the court to forgo the case, arguing in a brief that the “justifiable need standard in New Jersey’s Handgun Permit Law qualifies as a presumptively lawful, longstanding regulation that does not burden conduct within the scope of the Second Amendment’s guarantee.”
The petition was considered in three separate conferences, according to online records, but ultimately was denied.
The plaintiffs’ counsel, Alan Gura of Gura & Possesky in Alexandria, Va., said, “obviously we had a very strong case” but “very few cases make the cut.”
Gura called New Jersey’s law “an outlier” and “completely out of step with the prevailing practices in other states.” He pointed out that 44 states either don’t require carry permits or evaluate applications using objective factors rather than police or judicial discretion.
“This is a bad day not just for the Second Amendment, but a bad day for civil rights generally,” Gura added. “It’s a mistake to view this just as a case about the Second Amendment.”
There were no amici opposing the petition, though briefs in support of the law would have come if the court agreed to hear the case, Gura says.
Hoffman’s office declined comment through spokesman Lee Moore.
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