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A 53-year-old law preventing federally licensed firearms dealers from selling handguns or handgun ammunition to adults under the age of 21 is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
A divided panel on the Richmond, Va.-based Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a Virginia federal judge’s ruling upholding the federal Gun Control Act of 1968.
“When do constitutional rights vest? At 18 or 21? 16 or 25? Why not 13 or 33?” asked US Circuit Judge Julius Richardson in his ruling. “In the law, a line must sometimes be drawn. But there must be a reason why constitutional rights cannot be enjoyed until a certain age. Our nation’s most cherished constitutional rights vest no later than 18. And the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms is no different.”
Richardson, who was appointed to the bench by former President Donald Trump, went on to note that 18-to-20-year-olds “enjoy almost every other constitutional right, and they were required at the time of the Founding to serve in the militia and furnish their own weapons … 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 ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought by 19-year-old Natalia Marshall, a University of Virginia student who said she wanted a handgun as protection from an abusive ex-boyfriend.
While the Gun Control Act of 1968 bars handgun purchases from licensed dealers, Americans aged 18 and over are still permitted under federal law to purchase handguns from a private party. They also are allowed to buy long guns from a dealer.
However, Richardson noted in his ruling that Marshall wanted a handgun from a licensed dealer due to the weapon’s “ease of carrying, training and use,” as well as because such dealers “tend to have a wider supply, a good reputation, and a guarantee that the guns have not been used, stolen, or tampered with.”
Richardson was joined in his ruling by Judge Steven Agee, a George W. Bush appointee. Judge James Wynn, an Obama appointee, dissented, accusing his colleagues of breaking “new ground by invalidating a modest and long-established effort to control gun violence.”
“[T]he 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.”
Wynn added that the Second Amendment “is exceptional not because it is uniquely oppressed or imperiled, but rather because it is singularly capable of causing harm … 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.”
It was not clear what effect the ruling would have. The New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in an opposite manner on the same issue several years ago.
Also, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF), which is named as the main defendant in the case, could request the Fourth Circuit hear the case en banc. Eight of the 15 judges on the Fourth Circuit were appointed by Democratic presidents.
Jonathan Lowy, chief counsel at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, called the ruling a “very dangerous” and “clearly incorrect” decision.
“Throughout American history, Americans — through the Democratic process — have largely been able to enact the public safety laws that they need,” he said in a statement, “and courts have deferred to that authority to protect Americans’ most fundamental right, and that is the right to live.”
With Post wires
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