A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that California’s ban on the sale of most semiautomatic weapons to adults under age 21 is unconstitutional.
The Second Amendment reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
“America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army,” U.S. Circuit Judge Ryan Nelson, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote for the San Francisco-based appeals court. “Today we reaffirm that our Constitution still protects the right that enabled their sacrifice: the right of young adults to keep and bear arms.”
A summary of the court ruling reads, in part: “The panel held that California’s ban was a severe burden on the core Second Amendment right of self defense in the home.” It also says that historical record showed that the Second Amendment “protects the right of young adults to keep and bear arms, which includes the right to purchase them.”
The decision by Nelson and U.S. Circuit Judge Kenneth Lee, also a Trump appointee, reverses a ruling by San Diego-based U.S. District Judge M. James Lorenz, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, who in November 2020 (pdf) declined to block the law’s enforcement.
“[T]he district court erred by holding that the California laws did not burden Second Amendment rights,” Nelson wrote in the opinion on Wednesday.
The office of California Attorney General Rob Bonta, a Democrat, said it is reviewing the court’s decision. In a statement, a spokesperson said it was committed to “defending California’s commonsense gun laws.”
The California law, California Penal Code 27510(a), took effect in July 2021, banning the sale of long guns and semiautomatic centerfire rifles to anyone under the age of 21. Law enforcement officers and active-duty military service members would be exempt from the ban. But those with hunting licenses would not be exempt.
Plaintiffs who brought the case challenging the law had argued the measure infringes on the Second Amendment rights of adults aged 18–20.
“We are delighted that the Ninth Circuit has vindicated the rights of 18- to 20-year-old adults to keep and bear arms,” Haley Proctor, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the San Francisco Chronicle on Wednesday after the ruling.
The Firearms Policy Coalition, who were among the plaintiffs, on Twitter called the decision a “huge win.” The non-profit group said the ruling makes it optimistic age-based gun bans will be overturned in other courts.
U.S. District Court Judge Sidney Stein, an appointee of President Bill Clinton who was temporarily assigned to the panel from the Southern District of New York, dissented. He said the state of California gave “substantial and substantiated justifications for its enactment of the semiautomatic rifle regulation.”
Stein said the ban did not place a “severe burden” on gun rights for young adults, pointing out that they can still obtain semiautomatic rifles from family members, or borrow them from others.
He also said that those under 21 are “disproportionately more likely to commit violent crimes in general and gun violence specifically than older adults.” He wrote, “While 18 to 20-year-olds comprise less than 5 [percent] of the U.S. population, they account for more than 15 [percent] of reported homicide and manslaughter arrests.”
Nelson had noted in his opinion that plaintiffs pointed out that only 0.25 percent of young adults are arrested for violent crimes.
“In other words, California’s law sweeps in 400 times (100 [percent] divided by 0.25 [percent]) more young adults than would be ideal,” he wrote. “Because it regulates so much more conduct than necessary to achieve its goal, the law is unlikely to be a reasonable fit for California’s objectives.”
Hunting License Requirement ‘Reasonable,’ Court Rules
Matthew Jones, from Santee in San Diego County, is the lead plaintiff in the case. He originally sued in July 2019 when he was 20 years old, saying he wanted a gun to defend himself and for other lawful reasons, but didn’t want to obtain a hunting license.
The hunting license requirement was passed in 2018, when handgun sales to those under 21 were already prohibited. The requirement came after a mass shooting where a 19-year-old man opened fire on Valentine’s day in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people.
In 2019, another 19-year-old man in April opened fire at a synagogue in San Diego County, killing one and injuring three others, including an 8-year-old girl. In response, the California legislature moved to ban sales of semiautomatic centerfire rifles to anyone under 21, and the measure was signed into law in October 2019.
Jones’s lawsuit was filed before the California ban came about. The lawsuit was later amended to also challenge that law.
The 9th Circuit panel said in its majority opinion that an outright ban on semiautomatic centerfire rifle sales to those under 21 went too far. But it said the state can require the underage adults to obtain a hunting license in order to purchase a semiautomatic rifle. It said the license requirement would be “reasonable” for increasing public safety through “sensible firearm control.”
“It’s one thing to say that young adults must take a course and purchase a hunting license before obtaining certain firearms,” Nelson wrote in the concurring opinion. “But to say that they must become police officers or join the military? … It is a blanket ban for everyone except police officers and servicemembers.”
Democratic state Sen. Anthony Portantino of La Cañada Flintridge, who wrote both laws, said he was disappointed the semiautomatic ban was struck down but was pleased the hunting license requirement survived.
“I remain committed to keeping deadly weapons out of the wrong hands,” Portantino said. “Student safety on our campuses is something we should all rally behind and sensible gun control is part of that solution.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.