The federal law prohibiting handgun sales to adults under 21 years old violates the Second Amendment and should be blocked across the entire country, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
Senior Judge Robert Payne of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled the sales ban unconstitutional in May. He then asked the plaintiffs and government to agree to a path forward in issuing an injunction. Because the parties couldn’t agree, he sided with the plaintiffs on Wednesday and issued a nationwide injunction against the law.
“[T]he Court’s ruling does, and must, apply to protect the Second Amendment rights of all citizens between the ages of 18 to 21 who are otherwise eligible to buy a handgun,” Judge Payne, a George H.W. Bush appointee, wrote in Fraser v. ATF.
He explained adults under 21 were equally affected by the handgun sales ban and, since he also certified they could all be considered plaintiffs in the class action suit, they all deserved the same protections.
“[P]eople between the ages of 18 and 21 in the Eastern District of Virginia suffer an equal burden as people of the same age in the Southern District of New York, the Central District of California, or any other district. The Government’s policies affect–and harm–each of them equally,” he wrote. “Therefore, ‘[t]he categorical policies relied upon by the Government call for categorical relief.’ Only a nationwide injunction will ‘prevent irreparable injury to plaintiffs,’ who, since as class has been certified, include all American citizens between the ages of 18 to 21 who are otherwise qualified to purchase a gun.”
However, Judge Payne also issued a stay on his ruling that allows the Department of Justice (DOJ) to continue enforcing the ban while it appeals the decision. Terrence Clark, a DOJ spokesperson, said the department declined to comment on the decision.
The decision marks another victory for gun-rights advocates in the wake of the Supreme Court’s New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen decision. That case established a new test for whether a gun restriction is allowed under the Second Amendment based on America’s history and tradition of gun laws. Federal courts across the country have struck down numerous gun bans and regulations under the new standard.
Judge Payne found the federal law barring 18-to-20-year-olds from buying handguns had no historical analogue.
“[T]he Government’s argument is predicated on a limited, and erroneous reading, of the fundamental right protected by the Second Amendment,” he wrote in May. “[T]he Second Amendment protects the right to purchase, not just to possess, a firearm.”
He argued the Founders intended to protect the right to acquire arms alongside the right to keep and bear them.
“Not simply protecting the heartland of the preserved right, the Second Amendment protects the environs surrounding it to prevent any encroachment on the core protections,” he wrote. “Thus, by virtue of the word ‘infringed,’ the Second Amendment’s protective textual embrace includes the conduct necessary to exercise the right (‘to keep and bear’) and that, as explained above, includes the right to purchase arms so that one can keep and bear them.”
Judge Payne said the sales ban tramples the plaintiffs’ rights even though they eventually age out of the prohibition.
“Contrary to the Government’s view,’ it does not matter that, one day, Plaintiffs will age out of the prohibited category,” he wrote in Wednesday’s opinion. “Since they turned 18, and at this moment and this point in their lives, their constitutional rights have been, and continue to be, denied by the Government’s conduct in enforcing the challenged statutory and regulatory regime.”
He also rejected the government’s claim that the sales ban was constitutional because it did not totally deprive adults under 21 of the ability to legally possess or even own handguns.
“Nor is the irreparability of the constitutional injury eliminated because, as the Government argues, the Plaintiffs and class members “may lawfully obtain handguns as a gift from their
parents,” Judge Payne wrote in the new ruling. “Nothing in the Second Amendment limits the Plaintiffs’ exercise of their constitutional rights to what a third-party, by grace, may choose (or not) to do to help Plaintiffs exercise that right (here the right to purchase that which the Second Amendment entitles them to purchase on their own).”
He chided the government for not presenting a single potential historical analogue for the modern age-based handgun sales ban.
“As explained in the decision granting summary judgment, applying the mode of analysis prescribed by New York State Rifle & Pistol Associations, Inc. v. Bruen the statutory and regulatory regime proposed to be enjoined offends the Second Amendment,” he wrote. “In fact, as explained in that opinion, the Government was not able to provide any founding era support (as required by Bruen) for the deprivation effected by the statutory and regulatory scheme at issue.”
But he also recognized the Bruen standard remains in its infancy and has produced varying rulings on the same topics across federal courts. So, he agreed that a stay to allow higher courts to weigh in on the case was appropriate.
“[A]s this Court has noted before, Bruen’s requirement that courts conduct a historical inquiry poses many ‘challenges,'” he wrote. “As other courts have noted, the test for determining what is a proper “historical analogy’.. . presents many questions without fully formed answers.’ The Fourth Circuit has not yet opined on the proper application of this test. Thus, there remain some unresolved questions about the exact application of the Bruen analytical mode.”
Still, Judge Payne concluded the burden on the Second Amendment rights of adults under 21 was too significant and shouldn’t stand.
“By infringing upon the Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, the challenged statutory and regulatory provisions inflicted an irreparable injury on Plaintiffs,” he wrote.
UPDATE 8-30-2023 8:05 PM EASTERN: This piece has been updated to reflect that the DOJ declined to comment.