An Amish man’s conviction for selling firearms without a license does not run afoul of the Constitution and must be allowed to stand, a federal judge ruled Monday.
U.S. District Judge Joseph Leeson, an Obama appointee, denied a motion to set aside the felony conviction of Reuben King. He rejected the arguments raised by King and his lawyers that the trial court improperly applied the Bruen test when he initially moved to have his charges dismissed on constitutional grounds.
“If the Second Amendment’s plain text covers certain conduct, then the government may regulate that conduct only by demonstrating that the regulation ‘is consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,’” Leeson wrote in his opinion. “Contrary to King’s argument, the Court did employ that analysis in its prior opinion. It simply never discussed the second part of the analysis because King’s conduct did not make it past the first part. In other words, the Second Amendment’s plain text does not cover the commercial sale of firearms. As a result, there is no need to discuss whether the Act is consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”
The ruling is sure to be welcome news for gun-control advocates, who have long sought to crack down on gun sales by private, unlicensed sellers. President Joe Biden, in particular, has made the regulation of firearms commerce a key priority of his gun-control agenda. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act he signed into law last June created new standards designed to force more private individuals to obtain federal licenses to sell guns. He has also directed his ATF to crack down on already-licensed gun dealers with more frequent inspections and “zero-tolerance” license revocations. If Leeson’s finding that the Second Amendment’s plain text does not cover commercial gun sales takes root, it will likely open the door for many new firearms industry regulations.
Joshua Prince, King’s lawyer, called Judge Leeson’s decision “incomprehensible” and suggested it would likely be appealed.
“As addressed in both our initial briefing and in our reply brief, the Third Circuit has explicitly held in both United States v. Marzzarella and Drummond v. Robinson Twp. that the commercial sale of firearms is protected under the Second Amendment,” Prince told The Reload. “While Mr. King is precluded from filing an appeal until sentencing occurs, I anticipate that an appeal to the Third Circuit will be filed swiftly after sentencing.”
Reuben King was not a federally licensed firearms dealer when he was arrested, nor did he attempt to become one, according to court documents. Though he was only indicted on one count of dealing in firearms without a license, he was alleged to have sold thousands of rifles and shotguns from his Pennsylvania barn, including to undercover law enforcement officers on multiple occasions.
Current federal law requires a person “engaged in the business of dealing in firearms,” to first obtain a license. It exempts gun owners who “make occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms.” Until recently the definition included anyone who sells guns “with the principal objective of livelihood and profit,” but the livelihood language was removed by the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and new guidelines have yet to be made public.
King attempted to have his indictment dismissed by arguing that the federal law requiring a license to sell firearms was unconstitutional under the Second Amendment. Judge Leeson dismissed that attempt last December after arguing that King’s sales exceeded the occasional selling of guns as part of a hobby and instead ventured into a full-blown business. He said the Constitution permitted regulations on firearms businesses.
“King is alleged to have violated the Gun Control Act by engaging in the commercial sale of firearms without a license. That conduct is not protected by the plain text of the Second Amendment,” Leeson wrote at the time. “The Act does not stop King from keeping or bearing arms. The Act does not keep him from buying and selling firearms in order to maintain a private collection. Nor does the Act prohibit the commercial sale of firearms outright; it simply requires a license to do so. As a result, the Act does not violate the Second Amendment.”
He was subsequently convicted of dealing in firearms without a license in May but has yet to be sentenced.
In addition to arguing a misapplication of the Bruen test during his conviction, King argued that the Gun Control Act violated his religious rights under the First Amendment. As an Amish man, he argued that his faith prohibited him from having his photo taken, which would be required as part of the ATF’s application process for licensed gun dealers.
Leeson rejected these claims because King never attempted to apply for a license or request a religious exemption from the parts of the process that violated his religious beliefs.