Judge Finds Federal Age-21 Rule For Handgun Purchases Unconstitutional
A 54-year-old federal prohibition on the sale of guns to Americans between 18 and 20 years old has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in Richmond, Virginia. The Justice Department is expected to appeal and ask for the ruling to be put on hold as the case is further adjudicated.
The case has three plaintiffs, all between 18 and 20 years old. One, John "Corey" Fraser, was refused when he attempted to buy a Glock 19x from a Federal Firearm Licensed Dealer (FFL). The other two want to buy a handgun but haven't tried, in light of Fraser's experience.
The challenged provision of the Gun Control Act of 1968 didn't prohibit possession by 18- to 20-year-olds, it only made it illegal for FFL's to sell handguns to them. Rifles and shotguns have no such federal restriction.
The ruling is the latest in a string of defeats for gun-control measures. The trend is driven by the application of a new constitutionality test prescribed in the Supreme Court's 2022 Bruen decision.
This week's ruling is particularly significant because it's one of the first that uses Bruen to kill a federal law, as opposed to a state one. In February, a federal court applying the Bruen test shot down a 30-year-old law banning gun ownership by people subject to domestic-violence restraining orders
Using the Bruen test, a gun-control law can only be upheld if the government demonstrates that it's "consistent with the nation's historical tradition of firearm regulation." Further, when examining the record, judges are compelled to give the most weight to historical sources from the era of the Second Amendment's 1791 ratification.
In Thursday's ruling, Judge Robert E. Payne of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia concluded the government's defense of the age-21 law failed the Bruen test:
"The government has not presented any evidence of age-based restrictions on the purchase or sale of firearms from the colonial era, Founding or Early Republic,” wrote Payne in a 71-page decision.
While the Supreme Court's 2008 Heller decision found that the right to 'keep arms' isn't exclusively tied to militia service, Payne scrutinized the history of militia laws -- and particularly, age stipulations in those laws -- as part of his review of the historical tradition of gun regulation relative to the challenged law.
Those laws blew holes in the government's case. "At the time surrounding ratification of the Second Amendment, 16 or 18 was the age of majority for militia service throughout the nation," wrote Payne, who was nominated by President George H.W. Bush.
Elsewhere, he noted that, “if the Court were to exclude 18-to-20-year-olds from the Second Amendment’s protection, it would impose limitations on the Second Amendment that do not exist with other constitutional guarantees."
Gun control advocates railed against the decision. "Research shows us that 18- to 20-year-olds commit gun homicides at triple the rate of adults 21 years and older," said Janet Carter, senior director of issues and appeals at Everytown Law. She added that the age-21 handgun-purchase law "is not just an essential tool for preventing gun violence, it is also entirely constitutional.”
This decision is very important, but it doesn't yet settle the issue nationally, as judges have been ruling in both directions where age restrictions are concerned:
- In December, a federal judge in the Western District of Louisiana upheld the same federal restriction that Payne found constitutional this week.
- Florida's age-21 law for any gun purchase was upheld in March by an Eleventh Circuit panel.
- A federal judge ruled in March against a Minnesota law establishing a minimum age of 21 to qualify for a handgun-carry permit.
- Last year, the Ninth Circuit ruled against California's age-21 rule for buying centerfire semiautomatic rifles.
The patchwork of decisions could make the issue ripe for Supreme Court consideration. In the meantime, amid all that judicial inconsistency, state legislatures have been actively installing or considering new age-21 restrictions. For example:
- In April, Colorado set age 21 as the minimum for buying any firearm.
- Earlier this month, the Oregon House passed a bill that would raise the minimum age for buying semiautomatic weapons to 21.
- This week, a Texas legislative committee advanced a bill setting 21 as the minimum for buying semiautomatic rifles.