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Fifth Circuit Wrongly Upholds Ban on Young Adults' Handgun Purchases and Right-to-Carry

Monday, June 24, 2013

On Oct. 25, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the federal law that bans dealer sales of handguns to law-abiding adults between the ages of 18 and 20. The decision, in the case of National Rifle Association v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, involved a challenge to the law by several young adults, joined by the NRA on behalf of its members in the same age group.

In our briefs, we pointed out that the age limit is inconsistent with the laws America’s founders passed—such as the Militia Act of 1792, which required 18-year-olds to arm themselves for militia service. The age limit is also in conflict with court decisions interpreting other constitutional rights such as the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, as seen in a Second Circuit ruling that barred New York City from restricting the retail sale of spray paint and permanent markers to those under 21 in an attempt to combat graffiti.

Most important, though, is that the age limit is inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s decision in Heller, which found that the Second Amendment protects the right of “all Americans” to keep and bear arms—handguns in particular—for self-defense. 

In its opinion, the Fifth Circuit held that the regulation barring dealer sales to those under 21 is “longstanding,” and as such is not a “burden upon the core right of self-defense protected by the Second Amendment,” that would require strict scrutiny. The court effectively placed the ban on retail sales of handguns to law-abiding young adults into the category of laws Heller recognized as constitutional, such as the prohibition of firearm possession by felons. In a wildly optimistic view of legislatures’ respect for individual rights, the court stated that “a longstanding measure that harmonizes the history and tradition of arms regulation in this country would not threaten the core of the Second Amendment guarantee.” 

The court goes on to say that the sales ban does “not severely burden the Second Amendment rights of 18-to-20-year-olds” because under Heller, “laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms… [are] presumptively lawful,” and that the law does not bar young adults from possessing handguns altogether. The judges also concluded that since the regulation has a “temporary effect” on young adults, little scrutiny of the regulation is required.

After the panel decision, the NRA sought to have the case heard before the entire court. However, on April 29, by a slim majority of 8-7, the Court declined to hear the case. In a passionate dissent offered by Judge Edith H. Jones and joined by five of her colleagues, Jones noted the “serious errors in the panel decision’s approach to the fundamental right to keep and bear arms” and described the prohibition on young adults as “class-based invidious discrimination against a group of largely law-abiding citizens.”

In another setback for young adults, the Fifth Circuit ruled May 20 to uphold Texas’ 21-year-old age limit for obtaining a concealed handgun license. As Texas does not allow for the unlicensed open carry of handguns, this amounts to a complete prohibition of those in that age group from bearing arms outside the home for self-defense. In the opinion in NRA v. McCraw, Judge Edith Brown Clement noted that the Fifth Circuit was bound by its decision in the earlier case on dealer purchases.

The NRA disagrees with the Fifth Circuit’s view that prohibitions on young adults purchasing and carrying the means of self-defense outside the home are insignificant burdens on the Second Amendment right, and that laws restricting these activities require a lesser level of scrutiny than those laws pertaining to gun ownership in the home by those over 21. Citizens considered adult enough to exercise other fundamental rights, such as the right to vote, who are also subject to serious responsibilities, such as registering for Selective Service, should be able to enjoy their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. In hopes of restoring the rights of young adults in the Lone Star State and across the country, we filed a petition on June 3 seeking review by the full Fifth Circuit.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.