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America's gun infatuation is a threat. The Supreme Court could make it worse.

Like all rights, those described in the Second Amendment are not absolute.
Illustration of a handgun concealed by a black box.
Unrestricted access to concealable firearms poses a great threat to public safety. Chelsea Stahl / MSNBC

America’s infatuation with guns is a national security threat. And it appears poised to get even worse.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging a New York state law that requires a license to carry a concealed weapon. In New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, the plaintiffs argued the law violates the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms by permitting the state to issue licenses only to those who can show a particularized need.

A majority of the justices appeared sympathetic to the association’s argument, and we now await their decision on whether they will strike down the New York statute. The court could go even further and hold that the Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms without restriction.

America’s infatuation with guns is a national security threat. And it appears poised to get even worse.

Such a decision would be a grave mistake from a national security perspective. I was one of 30 former national security officials to sign on to an amicus brief arguing that unrestricted access to concealable firearms poses a great threat to public safety. If states like New York are unable to restrict who may carry a concealed weapon, we will be at greater risk of gun violence, threats from foreign and domestic terrorism and political extremism.

First, states have a strong interest in imposing reasonable restrictions on who can carry a concealed weapon and under what circumstances, in light of the “ease with which concealable firearms can be hidden and the fire power they can pack.” Concealed carry of firearms allows for coordinated and deadly attack-planning because they enable the element of surprise. For this reason, handguns are the weapon of choice in most mass shootings. In 81 percent of mass shootings in the United States over the past 12 years, at least one handgun was used, according to an Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund analysis. In 60 percent of mass shootings, only a handgun was used.

In 2011, for example, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was one of 18 people shot at a shopping center parking lot in Tucson, Arizona, by a gunman who pulled out a Glock semiautomatic handgun. Six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, were killed in the attack. The gunman was able to get close to Giffords by concealing his weapon. He was able to inflict such massive damage because of the weapon’s firepower and its customized high-capacity magazine, which could fire 30 shots in 10 seconds without reloading.

During Wednesday’s oral argument, Chief Justice John Roberts raised concerns about concealed weapons at universities, places that serve alcohol and football stadiums. I’m personally not sure I have ever been to a college football game when security was not called upon at some point to remove an unruly fan. Now imagine a future in which the Supreme Court has permitted that fan to pull out his assault pistol in a stadium filled with thousands of fans. The old trope that “guns don’t kill, people do” ignores the fact that concealed assault weapons are far more lethal than a person without one.

Striking down New York’s licensing requirement would permit terrorists to further exploit our already lax gun laws.

Second, striking down New York’s licensing requirement would permit terrorists to further exploit our already lax gun laws. The FBI has assessed that America’s abundance of guns makes us more vulnerable than other countries to terrorist attacks.

Al Qaeda and Islamic State group training materials have reportedly urged recruits to capitalize on easy access to guns in the United States, and terrorists have apparently heeded that advice. For example, investigators have said a Saudi military pilot, working with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in 2019 used a Glock pistol he had obtain legally in the United States to kill three people and injure eight others at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. Legally obtained assault pistols were also used by terrorists in the 2015 attack on a San Bernardino, California, office building that killed 14 people and the 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49. When even a former ISIS operative refers to America’s gun laws as “dumb,” we don’t need to make them more permissive.

Third, the increase in domestic terrorism and political violence in our country makes restrictions on concealed weapons more vital than ever. One likely reason we did not see even more bloodshed at the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, which led to the deaths of five people, are the restrictive gun laws in the District of Columbia. It appears that insurrectionists largely left their guns at home. Imagine the carnage that may have occurred if they had been free to bring firearms.

In this climate of increasing threats and violence to public officials, what rational actor would decide to place himself in harm’s way as a lawmaker, school board member or election official when every outraged citizen you encounter may be carrying a concealed firearm?

The Supreme Court’s decision, expected sometime before next summer, will turn on the justices’ view of text and precedent, which can sometimes take unexpected turns. One of the last times the court decided a gun rights case, it struck down a law that prohibited people from possessing unlicensed handguns in their homes. In that case, District of Columbia v. Heller, the majority essentially erased from the Second Amendment the language that the right to bear arms is premised on a “well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state.” Turns out the textualists are only textualists sometimes.

But like all rights, those described in Second Amendment are not absolute. Constitutional rights may be restricted when states can show that the restriction is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling governmental purpose. As the court stated in Heller, the right to keep and bear arms “is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” Consistent with this notion, courts have long upheld restrictions on carrying concealed weapons, and the Supreme Court would be wise to follow that practice in this case.

Our Constitution carefully balances the rights of individuals with important governmental interests like public safety, and laws regarding guns need to be viewed with both interests in mind. As Justice Robert Jackson once wrote, we should not “convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”