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High Court To Hear 1st Major Gun Rights Case In More Than A Decade

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Supreme Court is headed for a major decision on gun rights for the first time in well over a decade. Justices will examine to what degree states can regulate whether a person can carry a concealed gun outside their home. Now, this won't happen until next term. But NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has an early look.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: It's been a long drought for gun rights advocates. In 2008, they won a huge victory when the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that the Second Amendment right to bear arms guarantees the right to own a gun in one's home for self-defense. Justice Antonin Scalia announced the opinion for the five-justice majority. In a critical passage, he said no constitutional right is unlimited. And the right to bear arms is no exception.

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ANTONIN SCALIA: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the amendment or state analogues. Our opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

TOTENBERG: There will be plenty of time in the future to flesh out these exceptions, said Scalia. Gun rights advocates celebrated, anticipating that more gun regulations would soon fall. But after the landmark decision and an adjunct case two years later, it was essentially crickets at the court on the subject of how far states may go in regulating guns. Even last year, the court declined to grant review in a bunch of gun cases. And the reason appeared to be what it was earlier. The court's gun rights enthusiasts weren't sure they had five votes to prevail. Now, however, with three Trump appointees ensconced on the court, there's a 6-3 conservative supermajority - meaning, on gun rights, there's one vote to spare.

And now, finally, the court seems to be on the move and taking a potential first step towards dismantling long established gun laws. The case that the court will hear next fall tests a New York law that limits permits to carry a concealed gun outside the home to individuals going hunting or to target practice and those who need protection, like a bank messenger carrying cash. New York is one of just eight states that have such restrictive concealed carry laws. But three of those states alone - New York, New Jersey and California - account for one-fifth of the U.S. population.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONTEMPORARY NOISE SEXTET'S "ZERO GRAVITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.