Federal Appeals Court Says No Gun Sales Under 21

Posted November 13, 2012 in Litigation by


You can vote at 18 and drink at 21. Now you can add purchasing handguns to the list: a federal appeals court upheld a federal law on Oct. 25 forbidding handgun sales by federally licensed dealers to people under the age of 21.

The National Rifle Association and several young adults had sued the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), claiming the law violated their Second Amendment rights to bear arms. But a federal district court in Texas disagreed, upholding the law, and the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed.


Under 21, “Relatively Immature”

The laws at issue only prohibit federally licensed firearms dealers from selling handguns to people under 21; they can still buy rifles from those dealers, and they can possess handguns, purchase them in private sales, and accept them as gifts from adults, according to the opinion.

“Notably, the court ruled that the ban didn’t even touch activity protected by the Second Amendment,” writes Steven D. Schwinn, an associate professor of law at the John Marshall Law School, on the Constitutional Law Prof Blog. “But, the court ruled, even if it did touch activity protected by the Second Amendment, it did not violate the Second Amendment.”

The 5th Circuit said that the conduct at issue – the sale of handguns to people under 21 – falls outside the Second Amendment’s protections because “the present ban is consistent with a longstanding tradition of targeting select groups’ ability to access and to use arms for the sake of public safety.”

Steven Schwinn

Groups that have been banned include the mentally ill and felons; handguns have been banned near schools and government buildings; and the sale of handguns has been regulated; the Second Amendment does not guarantee the right to bear arms in those situations.

“The present ban appears consistent with a longstanding tradition of age- and safety-based restrictions on the ability to access arms,” said the court. Thus Congress has and can restrict the ability of minors under 21, who are “relatively immature,” to purchase guns without the Second Amendment even kicking in.

But if it did, the laws would still not violate the constitution, the judges said, “since curbing violent crime by those under 21 constitutes an important government objective and that the sales ban – not a blunter possession ban – adequately served that end.”


Will the Supremes Bite?

The NRA says it is “deeply disappointed” with the ruling and “is considering all of [its] appellate options in this case.”

“The NRA will certainly seek ‘en banc’ review,” predicts Schwinn, referring to a request for the entire appeals court to hear the case (only three judges sit for a typical federal appeal). He also predicts that whichever side loses will take an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.   

The Supreme Court could be tempted to hear the case. While the ruling “breaks no new ground” in Second Amendment law, Schwinn says, it is the first time a federal appellate court has ruled on the law being challenged by the plaintiffs.

But the NRA’s chances with the Supremes are not great, according to Schwinn. “At the end of the day, the Supreme Court is unlikely to take this one up, so long as any final ruling from the Fifth Circuit reflects the kind of cautious, well-within-bounds approach of this panel.”


Do you think people under the age of 21 should be able to possess but not purchase handguns from licensed dealers? Start a conversation below.

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