18-to-20-year-olds are entitled to the same Second Amendment protections as other adults, according to a federal judge in Virginia.
On Wednesday, District Judge Robert Payne found the federal prohibition on sales of handguns to adults under 21 is unconstitutional. He ruled the government can’t stop licensed dealers from selling pistols to all adults. He said the Constitution protects the right to buy guns as part of the right to keep and bear them.
“[T]he Government’s argument is predicated on a limited, and erroneous reading, of the fundamental right protected by the Second Amendment,” Judge Payne wrote in Fraser v. ATF. “[T]he Second Amendment protects the right to purchase, not just to possess, a firearm.”
The ruling is the latest in a string of federal court decisions striking down limits on the gun rights of 18-to-20-year-olds. It represents another wave in the seachange hitting the nation’s gun laws in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2022 New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen ruling, which set a higher standard of review for gun laws.
There isn’t uniform agreement on the Second Amendment rights of younger adults, though. An Eleventh Circuit panel upheld Florida’s ban on those under 21 buying any kind of gun back in March. That came after a Ninth Circuit panel found California’s ban on the same age group buying most centerfire semi-automatic rifles was unconstitutional, and a Fourth Circuit panel also found the federal ban on selling pistols to those under 21 invalid before later mooting the case after the plaintiff turned 21.
Judge Payne, George H.W. Bush appointed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in 1992, said the text of the Second Amendment implies a right to purchase guns.
“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.”
He said the fact that the parents of 18-to-20-year-olds could buy them handguns doesn’t solve the problem that their rights are still being infringed. He rejected the government’s argument that those under 21 aren’t included in “the people” whose rights are protected by the Second Amendment during the founding era. He found 18-year-olds likely were considered part of that group and clearly should be today either way, given that numerous other rights are conferred at 18.
“If the Court were to exclude 18-to-21-year-olds from the Second Amendment’s protection, it would impose limitations on the Second Amendment that do not exist with other constitutional guarantees,” Judge Payne wrote. “It is firmly established that the rights enshrined in the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments vest before the age of 21.”
Further, he said reading “the people” in the more narrow sense it may have been understood at the Founding would lead to the rejection of rights for “vast swaths” of the American public today.
“Membership in the political community has grown to include numerous groups—women, minorities, and minors—that were denied inclusion at the time of the Founding,” he wrote. “This observation is not to disparage the Founders or their times. Instead, it is a testament to the ideals engrained in our Constitution by the Founders that our Nation has greatly expanded its definition of ‘the people’ in the 232 years since the adoption of the Second Amendment.”
Judge Payne said he didn’t appreciate that the Bruen standard requires lower courts to interpret historical statutes to interpret current law and argued there is a conflict in how he is required to interpret different sections of the Second Amendment.
“There is, of course, a logical inconsistency in applying an Originalist understanding of ‘keep and bear arms’ and a modern understanding of ‘the people,'” he wrote. “But, fealty to the teachings of Heller and Bruen and the need to avoid the unacceptable reach of the Government’s position warrants the result reached here.”
However, he ultimately concluded the prohibition on selling pistols to 18-to-20-year-olds can’t stand.
“The Government has not presented any evidence of age-based restrictions on the purchase or sale of firearms from the colonial era, Founding, or Early Republic. Nor has the Government offered evidence of such regulation between then and 1791 or in relevant proximity thereafter,” Judge Payne wrote. “For that reason alone, it has failed to meet the burden imposed on it by Bruen.”
Judge Payne issued an order for proposals from the plaintiffs and defendants on what action he should take after finding the law unconstitutional. Arguments are due on May 18th.