WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court appears hesitant to wade back into the national debate on guns.
The court refused Monday to decide whether the right to bear arms extends outside the home. The justices won't consider a challenge to a New Jersey law that restricts most residents from carrying guns in public.
The case would have marked the most significant gun control case at the high court since its District of Columbia v. Heller decision in 2008 upheld the right to keep handguns at home for self-defense.
The New Jersey challenge was backed by the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners Foundation. "The Second Amendment guarantees the right to carry weapons for the purpose of self-defense — not just for self-defense within the home, but for self-defense, period," the NRA argued in its brief to the high court.
New Jersey law enforcement groups defended the state's requirement that citizens prove a "justifiable need" to carry handguns outside the home, whether openly or concealed from view. In their brief, they claimed the law "qualifies as a presumptively lawful, longstanding regulation that does not burden conduct within the scope of the Second Amendment's guarantee."
The state had won two rounds in federal district and appeals courts in the case, Drake v. Jerejian. But another appeals court went the other way in a California case in February, providing the type of circuit split that often leads to Supreme Court intervention.
"Drake presents very strong splits on carrying outside the home and the need for evidence in Second Amendment cases," Alan Gura, the lawyer for those challenging New Jersey's law, had said before the court turned down the case.
Ever since Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for a divided Supreme Court in 2008 that the Second Amendment to the Constitution protects the right to possess guns at home, the question of public places has been looming. Many states impose restrictions, such as requiring a demonstrated need to carry a gun, whether concealed or in plain sight. Most lower courts have upheld those restrictions.
Until recently, the most obvious outlier involved an Illinois law that was much more restrictive than those in other states. Its ban on carrying concealed weapons in nearly all circumstances was struck down by a 7th Circuit appeals court panel. Rather than appealing to the Supreme Court, however, the state amended the law to allow for public possession with restrictions.
A ruling in February from a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals changed the equation. The majority opinion struck down San Diego County's restrictions as a violation of Second Amendment rights.
"The Second Amendment does require that the states permit some form of carry for self-defense outside the home," the panel said. "States may not destroy the right to bear arms in public under the guise of regulating it."