Judge in Virginia Strikes Down Federal Limit on Age of Handgun Buyers
A judge in Virginia has struck down federal laws blocking handgun sales to buyers over 18 and under 21, in a ruling that might augur the rollback of regulation prompted by the Supreme Court’s sweeping expansion of gun rights last year.
Judge Robert E. Payne of Federal District Court in Richmond, Va., ruled on Wednesday that statutes and regulations put in place over the past few decades to enforce age requirements on sales of handguns, like the semiautomatic Glock-style pistols, by federally licensed weapons dealers were “not consistent with our nation’s history and tradition” and therefore could not stand.
A citizen’s Second Amendment rights do not “vest at age 21,” he added.
In his 71-page ruling, Judge Payne, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, repeatedly cited the majority opinion in the landmark case New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, which struck down a New York State law that put tight limits on carrying guns outside the home.
The Justice Department is expected to appeal the ruling in Virginia, which, should it stand, would have a significant, if limited, impact on firearms purchases. The decision, which would not affect state age limits, will take effect when the judge issues his final order, which is expected in the next few weeks.
Elliot Harding, the lawyer who represented young adults including John Corey Fraser, who brought the case, seeking to buy handguns through federal dealers, said the decision would likely lead to similar rulings. “This is definitely the tip of the spear,” he said.
Gun rights groups have been filing lawsuits across the country, in hopes of weakening local and federal gun regulations, basing their claims on the Bruen case. They have had mixed results, winning some cases and losing others. In December, a federal judge in Louisiana upheld the 21-year-old age limit.
“This decision is not a surprise — all bets are off,” said Jonathan Lowy, a lawyer and gun violence activist who has sued firearms manufacturers on behalf of the victims of mass shootings and their families. “Bruen gave license to any judge who has an inclination to strike down any gun law.”
John Feinblatt, the president of the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, said he expected the ruling to be overturned, but he also anticipated a wave of similar cases over the next year by conservative jurists on the federal bench.
“It’s the latest example of a larger campaign by the gun lobby to see exactly how far radical judges will let them take the Bruen decision,” he said.
The Virginia case was brought by Mr. Fraser, who was 20 when he was turned away after trying to buy a Glock handgun from a federally licensed dealer last year. He subsequently challenged the 1968 federal gun control law, and age restrictions imposed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is responsible for enforcing the nation’s gun laws.
Already, 18-year-olds are allowed to buy long guns, including shotguns and semiautomatic rifles, from about 70,000 federally licensed dealers. They have been banned from purchasing handguns, which are the most common weapons used in crimes, through such vendors — but under federal law, they are legally allowed to buy them from private, unlicensed dealers.
The decision would ease the way for 18-year-olds to procure handguns.
“It’s important for people to understand that we are not talking about selling guns to minors,” Mr. Harding said. “It’s about closing a loophole. Eighteen-year-olds can legally buy a Glock in the parking lot of a gun store. This is about letting them walk through the front door, and going through all the same background checks they would undergo if they were buying a shotgun.”
Lawrence G. Keane, the general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade association, praised the decision, saying, “The case joins a growing body of case law applying Bruen and holding that age discrimination laws infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of young adults.”
Still, the Supreme Court decision identified some limits. In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., wrote that some gun control laws that use objective licensing criteria could still be considered constitutional.
States, Justice Kavanaugh wrote, were generally free to require “fingerprinting, a background check, a mental health records check and training in firearms handling and in laws regarding the use of force.”
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