WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that prohibitions on selling handguns to Americans under 21 violates the Second Amendment, the latest legal victory for gun rights advocates in federal court.
At issue is a gun control law signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 that banned the sale of handguns to people under 21 years old but permitted the sale of shotguns and rifles to those same people.
A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., said Tuesday that the law was an arbitrary restriction that relegated 18- to 20-year-olds to a second-class status under the Second Amendment. The decision is likely to be appealed and may eventually reach the Supreme Court.
“When do constitutional rights vest? At 18 or 21? 16 or 25? Why not 13 or 33?” wrote Judge Julius Richardson, nominated to the court by President Donald Trump in 2018. “In the law, a line must sometimes be drawn. But there must be a reason why constitutional rights cannot be enjoyed until a certain age.”
The decision comes a month after a federal judge in California invalidated California’s three-decade-old ban on assault weapons, comparing the AR-15 assault rifle to a “Swiss Army knife.” The San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit extended a stay in that case last month, delaying its impact while another dispute works its way through the courts.
Guns rights advocates cheered in April when the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to New York’s gun licensing requirements. That lawsuit challenges the state’s rules for receiving a license to carry concealed handguns. A decision is not expected in that case until next year.
The Supreme Court overruled handgun bans in Washington and Chicago in 2008 and 2010 in two cases that affirmed the rights of Americans to possess guns in their homes but left unanswered questions about carrying in public.
Richardson’s opinion on Tuesday drew a biting dissent from Judge James Wynn, nominated by President Barack Obama.
“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,” Wynn wrote. “Nor is it consistent with the proper role of the federal judiciary in our democratic system.”
The suit was filed by 19-year-old Natalia Marshall, who obtained a protective order against an ex-boyfriend, according to court records. The boyfriend had been arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm. Marshall was 18 when she attempted to purchase a handgun. Another plaintiff has since turned 21.
Supporters of tougher gun restrictions noted that other courts have upheld the law.
“The majority’s opinion is an extreme outlier that departs from all relevant precedent,” said Eric Tirschwell, managing director for Everytown Law. “Not only has this same law previously been upheld, other courts have upheld stronger minimum age laws.”