A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the long-standing federal ban on sales of handguns from licensed dealers to 18- to 20-year-olds is unconstitutional, because Congress in the 1960s did not demonstrate a good enough reason for the law.
In a 2-1 ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, Virginia, found that the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms is no different from other constitutional rights that start at age 18, so the government must have a justification to restrict that right.
“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,” Judge Julius Richardson wrote for the majority.
Richardson, a President Donald Trump appointee, was joined in the majority opinion by Judge G. Stephen Agee, a President George W. Bush appointee.
Judge James Wynn Jr., a President Barack Obama appointee, wrote a dissent that said the panel had overstepped its role as a court, and that “the majority’s decision to grant the gun lobby a victory in a fight it lost on Capitol Hill more than 50 years ago is not compelled by law.”
The Justice Department will almost certainly appeal the decision, which comes during an incendiary national debate over gun control laws prompted by everyday shootings as well as a series of mass shootings over the years at concerts, schools and other public spaces.
The Supreme Court, with a newly expanded 6-3 conservative majority, has teed up a major case about state concealed carry laws for the term that starts in October that will be a test of how far the justices might extend constitutional gun rights outside the home.
Meanwhile, Congress stands at a partisan deadlock over numerous gun control proposals backed mostly by Democrats, and President Joe Biden has issued executive orders and taken other actions to combat what he calls an “epidemic” of gun violence.
The decision recounts how in 1964, Congress, concerned about increasing gun violence, began a “field investigation and public hearings” and concluded among other things that juveniles getting handguns without consent of parents “is a significant factor in the prevalence of lawlessness and violent crime in the United States.”
In 1968, Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which prohibited licensed dealers from selling handguns to anyone under age 21 but permitted the sale of shotguns and rifles to those individuals, the decision states.
Later that year, Congress changed that law through the Gun Control Act of 1968, which prohibited licensed dealers from selling any firearm to those under 18 and maintained the ban on the sale of handguns for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds
The 4th Circuit majority found that Congress, when banning the sale of handguns and handgun ammunition to that age group, used “disproportionate crime rates to craft over-inclusive laws that restrict the rights of overwhelmingly law-abiding citizens.”
“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,” Richardson wrote for the majority.
The law restricts the rights of more than 99% of that age group because “a fraction of 1% commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime,” the majority wrote, and it is already illegal for felons, fugitives, drug users and immigrants who entered the country illegally to buy firearms from licensed dealers.
“So the laws at issue by their nature prevent a more law-abiding, less dangerous subset of 18- to 20-year-olds from purchasing from a more regulated market,” the majority wrote.
“The irony does not escape us that, under the government’s reasoning, the same 18- to 20-year-old men and women we depend on to protect us in the armed forces and who have since our Founding been trusted with the most sophisticated weaponry should nonetheless be prevented from purchasing a handgun from a federally licensed dealer for their own protection at home,” the majority wrote.
There is no ban against 18- to 20-year-olds owning, possessing or using a gun, the opinion states. Dealers can sell guns to parents or guardians who can gift them to minor children, but not when the children provide the money.
If it stands, the decision would mean 18- to 20-year-olds could buy a handgun from a licensed dealer but not cigarettes or alcohol.
The majority also wrote that it’s unclear whether the ban has been effective, something Wynn cautioned against in the dissent.
Wynn wrote that “doing so will place the nation and its lawmakers in a formidable catch-22: pass too onerous a regulation and see it struck down for violating the Second Amendment; pass too permissive a measure and suffer the same result.”
“This heads-I-win, tails-you-lose approach is a recipe for national inaction on gun violence,” Wynn wrote.
The plaintiff in the case is a 19-year-old woman who got a protective order against her abusive ex-boyfriend who, after that order, had been arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm and controlled substances, the decision states.
She also works as an equestrian trainer and often finds herself in remote rural areas where she interacts with unfamiliar people, and she considers a handgun as the most effective tool for protection from those risks, the decision states.