Bruen’s Practical Impact: What We Know and Where We are Going

  • Date:
  • October 12th, 2022

By: Andrew Willinger

In recent weeks, the Center has devoted a great deal of space to covering the legal implications of the Bruen decision, including how lower courts in New York, Virginia, Texas, and other jurisdictions have started to apply its history-focused framework.  But what about Bruen’s practical implications?  Has the decision impacted the number of people seeking a permit to carry a gun in public?  What data already exist about how Bruen has changed life for gunowners, those who want to acquire a gun, and those impacted by gun violence?

After Bruen was decided, the states with may-issue permitting laws moved quickly to either amend their laws to remove the proper-cause requirement (as in the case of New York), or issue legal opinion letters stating that such requirements were no longer in force and should not be applied by licensing officers (as in New Jersey, California, and other states).  The licensing rules in these states no longer mandate that individuals make a showing of proper or exceptional cause to obtain a concealed carry permit. 

The predictable impact of these legal changes was a rapid rise in permit applications in former may-issue states, as The Reload summarized here back in July.  For example, NYPD statistics released in late September show that the period from June 23-August 31 “account[ed] for nearly 50% of all new handgun permit applications” in New York City in 2022.  In other words, applications in the two months after Bruen equaled the number filed in the first 6-7 months of the year.  San Francisco similarly recorded a “dramatic spike” in concealed carry permit applications post-Bruen, receiving 45 applications in the weeks following Bruen when the city typically sees only 2 applications per year.  Hawaii also observed a notable increase in applications, and New Jersey officials projected over 200,000 concealed carry permit applications in the state after Bruen was issued.  New permit applications in Maryland from June 23 to July 11 increased 900% from the same period in 2021. 

It also stands to reason that these states are issuing more permits under shall-issue laws, although comprehensive data on permit application success rates is not yet available.  Those who apply for a license, even under a shall-issue licensing process, must still make required submissions, undergo training, and pay an application fee (in many states) before receiving a permit.  It’s important to remember that, even before Bruen, there was a distinct rise in the number of concealed-carry permit holders—by one count, the number of permit holders increased by 48% from 2016 to 2020, driven in part by certain states relaxing their permit application requirements pre-Bruen.  And this isn’t indicative of the full increase in the number of individuals who carry concealed weapons in public either, which has certainly jumped even more dramatically as more states move to permitless carry.

Concrete statistics about gun sales post-Bruen aren’t yet available, although the most recent data for 2020 showed a large jump in gun sales overall (a 40% increase from 2019, with purchases continuing to climb in early 2021).  It’s not immediately clear that Bruen will necessarily lead to an increase in gun sales, as opposed to a jump in permit applications.  Some of the largest may-issue states (New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts) require a permit to purchase a firearm—so the new applications there could be directly tied to gun purchases.  But many other states do not have permit-to-purchase laws, meaning that the spike in applications is likely driven by those who already own guns but were previously unable to carry those guns in public and would now like to do so.  Historically, restrictive changes to the law (like the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban) or even mere speculation that such changes are imminent, have triggered a jump in gun sales.  It may be that legal changes more permissive of gun possession and public carry, by contrast, either depress sales or have no discernible impact.  For example, gun sales declined markedly after the 2016 election of Donald Trump because prospective gun purchasers were no longer as motivated by the fear of stricter gun regulation.

Perhaps the most important empirical question in the aftermath of Bruen will be whether the decision leads to a statistically significant increase in gun violence in former may-issue states.  There’s no indication that such data would be directly relevant within the Supreme Court’s history-focused test or prompt a reevaluation of the decision, but gauging Bruen’s practical impact is still important.  The Court may, in the future, weigh challenges to other licensing rules, and preventing violent crime is (in many instances) a historically-grounded legislative rationale that can be considered in a limited way within the Bruen framework.  There are also, of course, pressing non-legal reasons to determine what impact, if any, Bruen has on gun violence.  For example, such research may lead to greater understanding of the nature and contours of gun violence as a societal problem, whatever the scope of governmental authority to address it through law.    

It could be that changing from may-issue to shall-issue licenses increases salient measures of physical violence.  For example, studies cited in the amicus briefs and Justice Breyer’s dissent in Bruen suggest an association between shall-issue licensing and higher rates of homicide and violent crime (and similar decreases for may-issue licensing), although there is academic debate about these findings and other studies find no impact.  A downstream effect of such an increase, if it exists, would be that more individuals are also exposed to gun violence, even if they are not personally a victim of gun violence.  For example, a recent study found that 30% of surveyed Generation-Z members had experienced gun violence personally and an additional 24% had a friend or family member who had.

The other piece of the puzzle here is whether Bruen leads to an increase in successful defensive firearm uses of the kind identified in Justice Alito’s concurrence.  Data regarding defensive gun uses is notoriously hard to come by, and scholarly estimates vary by a factor of ten or more.  A recent study using data from the National Crime Victimization Survey found that 0.9% of contact crimes involved a defensive gun use.  That percentage suggests there are approximately 100,000 annual defensive gun uses.  According to a different source, the 2021 National Firearms Survey, there are approximately 1.7 million defensive gun uses per year and approximately 1/3 of gun owners have (in their lifetime) used a gun to defend themselves or their property.[1]  The National Firearms Survey relies on answers provided by gunowners to survey questions.  There are numerous obstacles to accurately estimating the number of defensive gun uses, including the lack of a standard definition of a “defensive gun use,” the lack of large, reliable data sets, and the documented disconnect between the number of gunowners who report discharging a gun in self-defense and the number of individuals treated for gunshot wounds in the United States.

Even if data suggest an increase in gun violence on one or more metrics stemming from Bruen’s practical changes to state licensing frameworks, some are likely to point to increases in defensive uses of firearms (if indicated by the data) to argue that the decision’s benefits outweighed its costs.

[1] The survey itself provides more information about how the 1.7 million number, which required ancillary calculations and estimates from the data actually collected, was reached.