Young adults may soon be able to legally buy handguns once again.
A three-judge panel in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday the Second Amendment protects the rights of 18- to 20-year-olds to buy handguns. It struck down federal laws that prohibited licensed dealers from selling to young adults. In a two-to-one vote, the court found the federal restriction did not stand up to scrutiny.
“Our nation’s most cherished constitutional rights vest no later than 18,” Judge Julius N. Richardson wrote for the court, with Judge G. Steven Agee concurring. “And the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms is no different.”
The ruling could open up new options for self-defense or recreational shooting to young adults. It could also imperil state laws that ban young adults from owning handguns or other kinds of firearms, including those in large states such as California and Florida.
The court praised the motivations behind the handgun ban for young adults but said the desire to lower gun crime must be balanced against the rights of those involved.
“We appreciate the seriousness of gun violence in this country and applaud Congress’s laudable desire to curb senseless violence,” it said in the ruling. “But we also recognize that the Second Amendment embodies a fundamental, pre-existing right that enables ‘the people’ to preserve their own life, liberty, and property.”
The case was brought by two plaintiffs who argued the handgun ban actually made them less safe. Nineteen-year-old Natalia Marshall joined the case after her abusive ex-boyfriend was arrested for drug and gun possession but skipped court after being released on bail. She obtained a protective order but wants to own a handgun to protect herself since she is trained in handling firearms safely.
Tanner Hirschfeld, the other plaintiff in the case, said the ruling is a “huge victory” for “every 18 to 20-year-old’s right to defend themselves.” He said he was living off-campus while attending the University of Virginia when he found out federal law prohibited him from being able to buy a handgun from a licensed dealer due to his age. He said the ban made him feel like a “second-class citizen” so he joined the suit against the law.
“I wanted to purchase a handgun to keep in a locked safe next to my bed for self-defense,” Hirschfeld told The Reload. “I’m grateful the court ruled in our favor, as this will allow for more college-aged students to safely purchase a firearm to defend themselves against criminals, who don’t follow gun laws.”
Ultimately, the court decided the record showed the Second Amendment was always intended to apply to all adults, and young adults were no exception to the rule.
“History makes clear that 18- to 20-year-olds were understood to fall under the Second Amendment’s protections,” the court said in the ruling. “Those over 18 were universally required to be part of the militia near the ratification, proving that they were considered part of ‘the people’ who enjoyed Second Amendment rights, and most other constitutional rights apply to this age group. And Congress may not restrict the rights of an entire group of law-abiding adults because a minuscule portion of that group commits a disproportionate amount of gun violence.”
Judge James A. Wynn dissented from Richardson and Agee. He accused them of judicial overreach and questioned their motives.
“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.”
He said he would have upheld the handgun ban because, in part, the Second Amendment is too dangerous without it.
“The Second Amendment is exceptional not because it is uniquely oppressed or imperiled, but rather because it is singularly capable of causing harm,” he wrote. “As other courts have recognized, while there are dangers inherent in other constitutionally protected rights—like the rights to speak and assemble—the Second Amendment alone protects a direct and lethal right to endanger oneself and others.”
The majority agreed the government has an interest in preventing gun violence but could not create categorical bans on gun ownership based on a person’s age.
“Despite the weighty interest in reducing crime and violence, we refuse to relegate either the Second Amendment or 18- to 20-year-olds to a second-class status.”
The court ordered a lower court’s ruling upholding the ban to be vacated and remanded for a new ruling in line with their guidance. The federal government will now have to decide whether to appeal the ruling to a full panel of the Fourth Circuit.
Update 3:07 p.m. est: This story has been updated to include comment from Tanner Hirschfeld.