Florida’s law barring gun sales to anyone who isn’t 21 years old won a victory in federal court this week, but it probably won’t last.
On Thursday, a three-judge panel for the Eleventh Circuit unanimously ruled in favor of the ban. The judges found the law is in line with the historical tradition of firearms regulation under the Second Amendment. They ruled that late-19th-century laws against the same age group buying or carrying pistols were close enough analogs for Florida’s law.
“Because Florida’s Act is at least as modest as the firearm prohibitions on 18-to-20-year-olds in the Reconstruction Era and enacted for the same reason as those laws, it is ‘relevantly similar’ to those Reconstruction Era laws,” Judge Robin Rosenbaum, an Obama appointee, wrote for the majority. “And as a result, it does not violate the Second Amendment.”
The opinion is among the more serious attempts to justify a modern gun ban under the Bruen standard, but there are several reasons to think the Florida law won’t be around for long.
The first, and most pressing, is that the legislature is looking to repeal the ban. That’s one reason Judge Charles Wilson, who ultimately ruled in favor of the law, argued the court should have waited to see what the legislature would do instead of issuing a ruling.
“I would wait to issue an opinion until the current session of the Florida legislature completes its consideration of H.B. 1543, which may render the issue moot,” he wrote in a concurrence. “If passed, H.B. 1543 would reduce the minimum age in the law at issue from 21 to 18.”
In fact, when the office of Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody (R.) explained that she is obligated to defend the law in a comment to The Reload, the spokesperson made sure to note the legislature is working to repeal it. Republicans control both parts of the statehouse with a supermajority and Governor Ron Desantis (R.) has taken an aggressively pro-gun stance this session. So, the repeal appears to have a good chance of passing.
But, even if repeal fails, a higher court may well still strike down the law. The three-judge panel the case drew at this stage was probably the least favorable plaintiffs could have hoped for. They got a panel with two Democratic appointees from a court that has seven Republican appointees and just four Democratic ones.
There is a good chance the case will go to a full Eleventh Circuit panel before all is said and done. In fact, one judge on the circuit has already requested just that. The case seems to be going in the same direction the Cargill v. Garland bump stock ban case went in the Fifth Circuit. That saw a three-judge panel of Democratic appointees uphold the ban only to have the en banc panel toss it a short time later.
And there are some clear weak points in the Florida case. The biggest one is its complete reliance on laws passed not during the founding era, but the reconstruction era.
“[I]t’s clear that the public understanding of the Second Amendment at the time of the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification—as demonstrated by the wealth of Fourteenth Amendment Ratification Era analogues for Florida’s law—permitted the states to limit the sale of firearms to those 21 and older,” she wrote.
While the Supreme Court has used 19th-century laws as part of its historical analysis, it has made clear that the founding era is paramount.
“A final word on historical method: Strictly speaking, New York is bound to respect the right to keep and bear arms because of the Fourteenth Amendment, not the Second,” Justice Thomas wrote for the majority. “Nonetheless, we have made clear that individual rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights and made applicable against the States through the Fourteenth Amendment have the same scope as against the Federal Government. And we have generally assumed that the scope of the protection applicable to the Federal Government and States is pegged to the public understanding of the right when the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791.”
And, even though Judge Rosenbaum dismisses the fact that 18-to-20-year-olds were considered part of the militia at the founding and could even be required to provide their own firearms when mustering, there’s a good chance the other Eleventh Circuit judges will place more importance on the founding-era history. Additionally, the other judges may question just how close of a fit the late-19th-century laws are for the Florida ban. Unlike the modern prohibition, which bans all gun sales to 18-to-20-year-olds, the laws cited in the ruling only ban the sale of pistols to those under 21. Several explicitly make exceptions for shotgun and rifle sales and one only applies to carrying pistols.
So, Florida’s ban on selling guns to those under 21 survives for now. But probably not for long.