WASHINGTON — In a major expansion of gun rights, the Supreme Court said Thursday that Americans have a right to carry firearms in public for self-defense, a ruling likely to lead to more people legally armed in cities and beyond. The ruling came with recent mass shootings fresh in the nation’s mind and gun control being debated in Congress and states.
About a quarter of the U.S. population lives in states expected to be affected by the ruling, which struck down a New York gun law. The high court’s first major gun decision in more than a decade came on a 6-3 split with the court’s conservatives in the majority and liberals in dissent.
Meanwhile, across the street at the Capitol, Congress sped toward passage of its own gun legislation following the mass shootings in Texas,New York and California. Senators cleared the way for its measure, modest in scope but still the most far-reaching in decades.
Also Thursday, underscoring the nation’s deep divisions over the issue, the sister of a 9-year-old girl killed in the Uvalde, Texas, school shootings, pleaded with state lawmakers in Austin to pass gun legislation, which would go against the Republican-controlled body’s easing of restrictions in recent years.
President Joe Biden said in a statement he was “deeply disappointed” by the Supreme Court ruling, which he said “contradicts both common sense and the Constitution, and should deeply trouble us all.”
He urged states to pass new laws and said, “I call on Americans across the country to make their voices heard on gun safety. Lives are on the line.”
The court’s decision struck down a New York law requiring people to demonstrate a particular need for carrying a gun in order to get a license to carry one in public. The justices said that requirement violates the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.”
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority that the Constitution protects “an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.” That right is not a “second-class right,” Thomas wrote. “We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need.”
California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island all have laws similar to New York’s.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said the ruling comes at a particularly painful time, when New York is still mourning the deaths of 10 people in a mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo. “This decision isn’t just reckless. It’s reprehensible. It’s not what New Yorkers want,” she said.
But Tom King, president of the plaintiff New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, said he was relieved.
“The lawful and legal gun owner of New York State is no longer going to be persecuted by laws that have nothing to do with the safety of the people and will do nothing to make the people safer,” he said. “And maybe now we’ll start going after criminals and perpetrators of these heinous acts.”
The court’s decision is somewhat out of step with public opinion. About half of voters in the 2020 presidential election said gun laws in the U.S. should be made more strict, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of the electorate. An additional third said laws should be kept as they are, while only about 1 in 10 said gun laws should be less strict.
About 8 in 10 Democratic voters said gun laws should be made more strict, VoteCast showed. Among Republican voters, roughly half said laws should be kept as they are, while the remaining half closely divided between more and less strict.
In a court dissent joined by his liberal colleagues Thursday, Justice Stephen Breyer focused on the toll taken by gun violence. “Since the start of this year alone (2022), there have already been 277 reported mass shootings—an average of more than one per day,” Breyer wrote.
Backers of New York’s law had argued that striking it down would lead to more guns on the streets and higher rates of violent crime. Gun violence, which was already on the rise during the coronavirus pandemic, has spiked anew.
In most of the country gun owners have little difficulty legally carrying their weapons in public. But that had been harder to do in New York and the handful of states with similar laws. New York’s law, which has been in place since 1913, says that to carry a concealed handgun in public, a person applying for a license has to show “proper cause,” a specific need to carry the weapon.
The state issues unrestricted licenses where a person can carry their gun anywhere and restricted licenses that allow a person to carry the weapon but just for specific purposes such as hunting and target shooting or to and from their place of business.
The challenge to the New York law was brought by the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, which describes itself as the nation’s oldest firearms advocacy organization, and two men seeking an unrestricted ability to carry guns outside their homes.
The Supreme Court last issued a major gun decision in 2010. In that decision and a ruling from 2008 the justices established a nationwide right to keep a gun at home for self-defense. The question for the court this time was about carrying one outside the home. Thomas wrote in his opinion that: “Nothing in the Second Amendment’s text draws a home/public distinction with respect to the right to keep and bear arms.”
As a young man in Memphis, Tennessee, Robert Dabney Jr. wanted to blaze a path that could set his family up for a better life. So two weeks after high school graduation in 1998, at age 18, he joined the U.S. Army.
During nine years of service that included two tours in Iraq, Dabney was a combat medical specialist. But after he left the Army in 2007 and returned to Memphis, married with children, he struggled to see what he’d gained from his service.
“I had exchanged my youth, ambition and vigor for a future that is limited just because of my mental health,” said Dabney, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in 2013.
His experience seeking treatment through the veterans health care system was plagued with challenges, he said. After navigating the system as a Black veteran, he wondered if he might help others find more culturally competent services that the federal government seemed ill-equipped to provide.
Testimony like Dabney’s was being shared at the first-ever national policy conference for Black veterans in Washington on Thursday. Representatives from nearly 20 advocacy groups for service members of color were collaborating on a legislative agenda addressing longstanding racial, economic and social inequities facing more than 2 million Black American veterans.
“For many people from Black and brown (veterans) communities, we’re starting from a different place in life,” said Dabney, 42. “Being able to talk to people who started from that place, who have a mindset similar to yours as they went through the military, has a different meaning to us.”
In addition to disparities in the military justice system, homelessness and unemployment, federal veterans benefits data show Black service members’ post-Sept. 11 disability claims have been granted at lower rates than their white counterparts. Advocates say racial inequality in veterans’ benefit access stifles or, worse, upends the lives of those who proudly served their country.
“The system isn’t accommodating us, we’re accommodating it,” said Victor LaGroon, chairman of the Black Veterans Empowerment Council, which organized Thursday’s conference. “We’ve got to have these systemic and legislative discussions because, until there’s full transparency and accountability, people are going to continue to skirt the issues.”
Slated speakers include the secretaries of the Veterans Affairs and Labor departments, as well as officials from some state and local veterans service agencies.
Richard Brookshire, a former Army combat medic who served in the Afghanistan War, said a major goal is to help the Black veterans community coalesce around “what’s actionable” in a broader agenda that also targets historic inequity dating back to Black veterans serving in World War II.
“There needs to be a critical mass in the Black veteran community to demand it,” said Brookshire, who co-founded the Black Veterans Project. “The seed has been planted and we’re going to begin to see the tree bear fruit.”
The Black Veterans Empowerment Council was formed in 2020 amid the national reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd by police, as a roundtable of Black veterans groups to advise the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Council members said part of their work has been acquiring data to prove how Black veterans have unequal access to the benefits system.
According to Veterans Benefits Administration records analyzed by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School and reviewed by The Associated Press, there are statistically significant differences in disability claim outcomes for Black and white veterans. Although disability claim approval rates are low across the board, they are significantly lower for Black veterans.
Between 2002 and 2020, Black veterans had the lowest claim approval rate, at 30.3%, when compared to their non-Black counterparts. White veterans had 37.1% of their claims approved, while Hispanic veterans had an approval rate of 36% and Asian or Pacific Islander veterans had a rate of 30.7%.
Linda Mann, co-founder of the African American Redress Network at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, led a group of students that did an additional analysis on the benefits data. According to their findings, disparities in how Black veterans are rated on the severity of their condition amounted to lower disability compensation and decreased eligibility for other VA benefits.
These findings build on historic racial inequities in veterans benefits that stretch back to integration of the armed services in the late 1940s. Black service members who fought in World War II were either denied or prevented from taking full advantage of housing and educational benefits through the GI Bill. Black veterans of the Korean War had similar experiences with the program. Advocates say the generational effects of that discrimination, in terms of wealth, are still being felt today.
“What most people would usually say is we went through the civil rights movement and things are better,” Mann said, but that was not borne out by the Freedom of Information Act statistics the advocacy groups received.
“The continued inequity on the part of the military and VA tracked in not only the FOIA data that we looked at, but also in the practices and policies,” Mann said.
VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said the Biden administration’s focus on equity across the federal government has had significant implications for the agency’s approach in delivering benefits “to all veterans, and specifically to historically marginalized and underserved veterans.”
“We have used veterans’ voices as our North Star,” Hayes said in a statement.
Last year, the Black Veterans Project and the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress sued the VA over its Freedom of Information Act requests for benefits data by race. They won the access. In April, the White House released a summary of the VA’s equity action plan, in which the agency acknowledged race and gender disparities for veteran benefit access.
Dabney ultimately did blaze a better path for himself, going to college and becoming a hospital chaplain in Chicago. But it took overcoming a descent into alcoholism, infidelity and self-neglect before he found his calling.
After his diagnosis for PTSD and depression, he was connected to mental health counseling services through the VA at a community-based outpatient center near Chicago. The assigned counselor, a white woman, frustrated Dabney because he felt she could not relate to the complexities of his identities as a war veteran and a Black man from rough beginnings in Memphis.
“I got to the point where I would just say ‘Yes. Yes, that’s it,’” Dabney recalled. “Instead of me advocating for myself, I began to mold what I said based on what I thought that they could understand. In doing so, I wasn’t able to really open up and present my full self to them.”
He was ready to give up, but what he really needed was a peer encouraging him to stick with it, he said.
Now, Dabney manages a peer apprentice program at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance in Chicago. The program helps other Black veterans through a network of peer-directed mental health resources.
“It’s those relationships that encourage individuals to seek further help, to seek help from clinicians,” Dabney said.
Walidah Bennett, founder and director of a multi-faith veterans initiative at DePaul University in Chicago is working to provide Black churches and clergy with resources to serve veterans in their congregations.
Bennett’s son, Saad Muhammad, a veteran of the Iraq War, died by suicide in 2013, and in the 10 years since his death, she has established 15 community sites for veterans in crisis. Suicide rates among Black veterans have been on the rise, increasing from 11.8% to 14.5% between 2001 and 2019, though rates remain highest among white veterans, according to the VA’s 2021 annual report on veteran suicide prevention.
“Had we had the community spaces that we have today, it could have been very helpful to my son,” Bennett said.
For the second consecutive year, Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) is paying off students’ unpaid balances.
The college is using more than $1.4 million in federal funding to forgive the debts of 1,900 students who were enrolled during the 2021 summer and fall semesters.
Students whose balances were paid off received direct emails. The largest balance forgiven was $7,430.75.
The college has not raised tuition since the 2017-18 academic year. A 13-credit load for students costs $2,659 per semester. Enrollment in fall 2021 was 11,647 students.
“We know many of our students have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and now record-high inflation is presenting even more hardships for our students and their families,” said CCP President Donald Generals.
“We hope this decision will make it easier for students to complete their degrees or certificate programs — becoming one step closer to earning family-sustaining wages — without having to worry about paying off their balances.”
The funding comes from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), which was included in the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden last March. It covers outstanding tuition and book store balances. Once students’ balances are paid off, they will be able to register for the 2022 summer and fall semesters. The first day of classes for the 2022 fall semester is Sept. 6.
Last July, CCP paid $2.7 million to cover the debts of nearly 3,500 students using HEERF II funding between March 13, 2020, and the end of the spring 2021 semester.
College students across the country experienced higher food and housing insecurity in 2020, according to a survey conducted by the Hope Center for College Community and Justice at Temple University. In Philadelphia, 1 in 2 college students had trouble affording basic necessities.
“We received positive feedback from students last year who were able to stay enrolled at the college because of the board of trustees’ decision to pay off their balances,” Generals said.
“Once the college received more institutional funding from HEERF III … we decided to use this funding in the same way,” he added. “Considering the increase at the grocery store and the gas pump, we felt now was the right time to make this decision.”
In a written statement, CCP board of trustees Chairperson Jeremiah J. White Jr. said the board and the college will continue to help students financially in the future.
“We will continue to use every resource at our disposal to ease the financial burden far too many of our students face,” White said. “One less bill means that they can spend less time working overtime and more time focusing on their studies.”
‘LOOT’ GIVES THE GIFT OF COMEDY WITH MAYA RUDOLPH
City Council on Thursday passed a $5.8 billion budget that lowers wage and businesses taxes and provides property relief for many seniors on fixed incomes in some of Philadelphia’s Black and brown neighborhoods.
Council last week approved a draft of the budget for fiscal year 2023, in a compromise with Mayor Jim Kenney, and gave it final approval Thursday. It will now go to Kenney to be signed into law. The fiscal year begins July 1.
The Tribune reported in May that some homeowners were facing property taxes that would double in some cases — in the North, West and Southwest neighborhoods in the city — as a result of the reassessment announced in May. It will affect tax bills due in March 2023. At the time, Kenney said that Philadelphians would see on average a 31% hike in their property reassessment under his plan. It is the first city-wide reassessment in three years.
The budget included a large portion of Councilperson Kenyatta Johnson’s Save Our Homes tax relief plan. Johnson’s plan sought to increase the homestead exemption from $45,000 to $90,000, and Council compromised at $80,000.
It also increased the Longtime Owner Occupant Program (LOOP) budget from $30 million to $35.2 million, and the city’s rental assistance program to $15 million because officials anticipate rent increases due to the reassessment.
Also, the budget allows eligible seniors to retroactively enroll in the city’s Senior Tax Freeze program. Those seniors will be able to freeze their property assessment to the point when they first became eligible, as far back as 2018. To be eligible, you must be at least 65, with income of up to $33,500 for a single person or $41,500 for a married couple.
Johnson said the budget addressed several other issues important to him and the 2nd district, which includes Center City, parts of South Philadelphia and Southwest Philadelphia. For example, the overall gun violence prevention budget has been increased to $200 million, and $500,000 was allocated for the city’s victim advocate office.
“We have people in the city of Philadelphia who are suffering from trauma from all of the shootings,” Johnson said.
In a related matter, the wage tax on city residents will drop to 3.79%, down from 3.83%, while the wage tax on commuters will decrease to 3.44%, down from 3.448%.
The net income part of the city’s Business Income and Receipts Tax (BIRT) will drop to 5.99% from its current 6.2%.
Council members said this will provide relief for small and minority businesses who have struggled during the COVID pandemic. Several councilmembers hinted that this could be their last session, and made comments about the kind of leadership they think the city needs. Some of them are expected to run for election as mayor, including 7th District Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, 8th District Councilmember Cindy Bass, 9th District Councilmember Cherelle Parker, and At-Large Councilmembers Allan Domb, Derek Green and Helen Gym.