A federal appeals court ruled on July 13 that a federal law banning handgun sales to young adults is unconstitutional.
In a 2–1 vote, the three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that a law Congress passed in 1968 that sets a minimum age of 21 for purchasing handguns violates the Second Amendment.
“Looking through this historical lens to the text and structure of the Constitution reveals that 18- to 20-year-olds have Second Amendment rights. Virtually every other constitutional right applies whatever the age. And the Second Amendment is no different,” Judge Julius N. Richardson, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote in the ruling.
“The militia laws in force at the time of ratification uniformly required those 18 and older to join the militia and bring their own arms. While some historical restrictions existed, none support finding that 18-year-olds lack rights under the Second Amendment.”
Judge G. Steven Agee, an appointee of President George W. Bush, joined in the decision.
The two judges found that Congress didn’t meet its burden to justify passing the law in 1968.
“Congress used disproportionate crime rates to craft overinclusive laws that restrict the rights of overwhelmingly law-abiding citizens,” the majority opinion stated. “And in doing so, Congress focused on purchases from licensed dealers without establishing those dealers as the source of the guns 18- to 20-year-olds use to commit crimes.”
“Despite the weighty interest in reducing crime and violence, we refuse to relegate either the Second Amendment or 18- to 20-year-olds to a second-class status. … Congress may not restrict the rights of an entire group of law-abiding adults because a minuscule portion of that group commits a disproportionate amount of gun violence.”
The ruling is a victory for Natalia Marshall, from Virginia, who filed a lawsuit in 2018 against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to challenge the law after she was denied a gun from a licensed firearms dealer because she was 18 at the time of the attempted purchase.
Marshall wanted to buy the gun to protect herself from her abusive ex-boyfriend, and defend herself against other potential threats. Another plaintiff in the case against the ATF had since turned 21 at the time of the ruling, which rendered his claims moot.
The latest ruling by the appeals court reverses a decision by U.S. District Judge Glen E. Conrad that had dismissed the suit. Conrad had ruled that the 1968 law was “among the ‘longstanding prohibitions’ and ‘conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.'”
Only five states covered by the 4th Circuit—North and South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia—will be affected by the ruling.
Judge James A. Wynn Jr., an appointee of President Barack Obama, dissented in the ruling.
“The majority’s decision to grant the gun lobby a victory in a fight it lost on Capitol Hill more than fifty years ago is not compelled by law. Nor is it consistent with the proper role of the federal judiciary in our democratic system,” Wynn wrote.
He noted that the ruling only affects the commercial sale of firearms, and that those above 18 years of age are still allowed to own and use handguns and can receive them as gifts or buy such guns via unlicensed but otherwise legal, private sales. As such, he stated that the other two judges’ concern that the 1968 law would “relegate either the Second Amendment or 18- to 20-year-olds to a second-class status” is “simply surreal.”
People over 18 years of age are permitted to buy a long gun, such as a rifle or a shotgun, from a licensed firearms dealer in most states. Select states, including California and Florida, have laws barring long gun sales to those under 21 years old.