The Second Amendment does not protect the ability of 18-to-20-year-olds to purchase firearms, according to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
A three-judge panel for the circuit unanimously ruled in favor of Florida’s sales ban on Thursday. It concluded the law, which prohibits sales to those under the age of 21, “is consistent with our Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”
“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 in her ruling. “And as a result, it does not violate the Second Amendment.”
The decision marks the first federal appeals court ruling on gun sales for 18-to-20-year-olds to arrive since the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. It affirms a 2021 lower court ruling that arrived before the Supreme Court established its updated test for Second Amendment cases. It’s also one of the first federal court decisions after Bruen to uphold a state restriction on gun sales for younger adults. In contrast, federal courts in Tennessee and Texas have ruled against state laws prohibiting gun carry by 18-to-20-year-olds. Likewise, multiple federal appeals court decisions before Bruen ruled against bans on selling various types of firearms to the same age group.
Meanwhile, President Biden signed new federal gun-control legislation last year, creating special background check requirements and a new process for 18-to-20-year-olds looking to purchase a firearm. If the question of whether 18-to-20-year-olds can buy guns remains at the center of the political fight over firearms and courts continue to come down on opposite sides, that could make it another issue primed for Supreme Court consideration.
Judge Rosenbaum’s analysis of the law relied mainly on Reconstruction-era laws in southern states that barred those under 21 from buying certain weapons, including Bowie Knives and pistols, as historical analogues for Florida’s total ban on gun sales to the same age group. Although the Supreme Court “generally assumed” the protections of the Second Amendment were pegged to the public understanding of the right around the time of the founding, she said, “an assumption is not a holding.”
Instead, Rosenbaum focused on the era “when the people adopted the Fourteenth Amendment, thereby making the Second Amendment applicable to the States.”
“[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. “So even if federal law obliged 18-to-20-year-olds to muster for the militia, laws banning that same group from buying firearms do not infringe on the right to keep and bear arms.”
Though the Supreme Court expressly rejected interest balancing in its guidance to lower courts, Judge Rosenbaum appeared to rely on it in reaching the court’s conclusion. She supported her ruling by saying “automatic assault rifles” can shoot “sixty rounds per minute with enough force to liquefy organs” while citing a footnote about an article on AR-15s–which are semi-automatic rifles, not automatic.
She also supported her ruling by stating that 18-to-20-year-olds make up “less than 4% of the population,” but represent “more than 15% of homicide and manslaughter arrests.”
Florida’s law stems from the aftermath of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, in which an 18-year-old used a legally-purchased rifle to commit the attack. Florida passed a ban on the sale of firearms to those under the age of 21 just weeks later, and it was signed into law by Republican Governor Rick Scott.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) sued to challenge the law, arguing that it violated those Floridians’ Second Amendment rights. A federal district judge upheld the law in 2021, leading the group to appeal to the Eleventh Circuit.
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody (R.), whose office defended the ban in court, told The Reload “it is the duty of the Attorney General’s Office to represent the State of Florida,” but noted that legislature was reconsidering the ban.
UPDATE 3-09-2023 4:56 PM EASTERN: This piece has been updated to include comment from the Florida Attorney General’s Office.