Fourth Circuit ruling: federal laws banning handgun sales to young adults violate Second Amendment

Experts say review of 2-1 decision by full Court of Appeals is a strong possibility

A three-judge panel on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down decades-old federal laws and regulations that prohibit retailers from selling handguns to young adults under 21. The ruling, issued Tuesday, was 2-1. Congress previously cited the disproportionately high crime rate among young adults as reason to institute such a ban. Yet judges held that the laws infringed on these youths’ Second Amendment rights.

The suit was brought against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms by two young adults from Virginia, Tanner Hirschfeld and Natalia Marshall, who were denied the sales when the licensed dealers performed background checks on them. They sought an injunction and declaratory judgment on the laws that resulted in the denial.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 permits only sales of shotguns or rifles to individuals ages 18 to 20.

In addition to federal law, North Carolina law also includes a minimum age requirement of 21 years old for its own state permit. The state currently runs its pistol permit system separate from the federal background checks — individuals must obtain either a pistol purchase permit or concealed carry permit before sales and transfers of handguns. State law requires the applicant to be at least 21 years old. As Policy Watch previously reported, Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill this year that would repeal the state pistol purchase permit application. The bill passed the House in May despite Democratic opposition. If the state permit system were repealed, handgun sales in North Carolina would be governed by the federal laws currently undergoing court challenges.

“We first find that 18-year-olds possess Second Amendment rights,” Judge Julius Richardson wrote for the majority. “They enjoy almost every other constitutional right, and they were required at the time of the Founding to serve in the militia and furnish their own weapons.”

Richardson said there are flaws in the reasoning of such bans: First, the disproportionality of the pistol-induced crimes does not justify the categorical denial of rights to possess these weapons; Second, the evidence does not establish a link between the purchases from licensed dealers to crimes committed by youth.

Judge James Wynn dissented, contesting that the two judges in the majority were invalidating a “modest and long-established effort to control gun violence.” In his dissent, he wrote, “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.”

Eric Ruben, a criminal law professor at Southern Methodist University, predicted a full Fourth Circuit revisit of the ruling, otherwise known as an “en banc review,” if the U.S. Department of Justice seeks a rehearing, given the strong dissenting opinion. Ruben added that the Fifth Circuit in Texas reached the opposite conclusion upholding the federal restrictions, rejecting similar claims by the National Rifle Association.  The United States Supreme Court chose not to hear the NRA case in 2014.

Ruben said Judge Richardson’s majority opinion likened the Second Amendment to other constitutional rights, but failed to note the higher stakes associated with the freedom to own guns. He noted a disagreement between the majority and dissenting opinions over how restricted Second Amendment rights are for Americans.

Ruben added that the opinion could have far-reaching implications for state laws regulating assault weapons. “Even though this one just involves the federal restriction on the purchase of handguns, other states have restricted the acquisition of other sorts of firearms for those who are under the age of 21,” Ruben said. “On the reasoning of this case, it’s hard to see how those laws would be constitutional.”

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