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Supreme Court Won't Hear Challenge To Calif. Gun Carry Law


The Supreme Court docket for this fall is starting to take shape. The justices will hear a case that tests the limits of religious freedom, and they'll consider how far victims of terrorism can go to recover damages. But so far, one issue the high court will not address? Guns. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: In 2008, the late Justice Antonin Scalia handed down one of his most important legacies.


ANTONIN SCALIA: We hold that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to have and use arms for self-defense in the home and that the district's handgun ban, as well as its requiring firearms in the home be rendered inoperative, violates that right.

JOHNSON: In that case known as Heller, the court majority struck down Washington, D.C., laws that banned handguns in the home and required other weapons be disassembled or subject to trigger locks.

But Scalia made clear the Second Amendment has some limits. For example, he pointed to long-standing bans on firearms for felons and people with mental illness and laws that prevent the carrying of weapons in sensitive places, near schools. But nine years later, there are some big questions about the scope of the right to bear arms. Adam Winkler teaches law at UCLA.

ADAM WINKLER: The Supreme Court has made clear that you have a right to bear arms within your own home but has not made clear whether that right extends outside of the home, and if it does, what kind of permitting state and local governments can put on people who want to carry, for instance, concealed weapons.

JOHNSON: The National Rifle Association thought they had found the perfect case to answer those questions - a dispute from people in San Diego County who wanted to carry their weapons outside the home. The sheriff denied them concealed carry licenses, so they sued.

Last year, the 9th Circuit Appeals Court upheld the sheriff's finding that the gun owners did not have good cause to win those permits. But the court ducked the broader issue about the right to carry weapons in public. And this week, so did the Supreme Court, when it decided it would not hear the dispute. Josh Savani is deputy director of research at the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action. He says the NRA will keep fighting in court, even though Savani says it's disappointed by the decision.

JOSH SAVANI: It leaves millions of Americans in California with no ability to bear arms outside their home, no legal way for them to exercise their fundamental constitutional right.

JOHNSON: Someone else who's disappointed? Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote a dissent from the decision not to hear the California case. Thomas, joined by new justice Neil Gorsuch, says the time has come for the court to stop avoiding gun cases and provide some answers. He pointed out the last time the high court accepted a gun case was nearly seven years ago.

In that time, Thomas wrote, the Supreme Court has heard argument in 35 First Amendment cases and 25 Fourth Amendment cases. Avery Gardiner, the chief legal officer at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says in contrast, lower courts have heard plenty of cases.

AVERY GARDINER: It would be a misunderstanding for people to think that there hasn't been a lot of litigation about the Second Amendment and other issues related to gun violence prevention in the courts over the last five or seven years since the Heller decision.

JOHNSON: Gardiner says one dispute involves ways for people to print 3-D guns, another relates to local efforts to ban assault-style weapons and a third, open carry of handguns in public places. In fact, legal experts say since 2008, most gun control laws have survived court challenges.

For all the Supreme Court's reluctance to wade into the issues, legal experts say the justices won't be able to hide forever. There are two cases moving through the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. - ready for a ruling since September 2016 - that could make their way to the high court for consideration later this year. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WILLIAMS' "TOY SOLDIERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.