Fifth Circuit: You Must Be 21 to Buy a Gun from a Licensed Dealer

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 26, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

An 18-year-old can appear in Girls Gone Wild, but she can’t purchase a handgun from a federally-licensed firearms dealer. If you have a problem with that, you’ll have to submit an amicus brief to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court.

Thursday, a Fifth Circuit panel unanimously upheld an age restriction for handgun purchases, finding that the age threshold was “consistent with a longstanding tradition of targeting select groups’ ability to access and to use arms for the sake of public safety,” The Wall Street Journal reports.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) -- along with individuals who were over 18 but under 21 -- sued several federal agencies, challenging the constitutionality of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(b)(1) and (c)(1), as well as its regulations. The plaintiffs claimed that the laws violated the Second Amendment and Fifth Amendment equal protection by barring law-abiding 18-to-20-year-old adults from purchasing handguns from federally licensed dealers.

So far, no judges agree with the plaintiffs.

What's interesting about this decision is that 18-to-20-year-olds can legally possess and use handguns. Parents or guardians may gift handguns to 18-to-20-year-olds. These not-quite-full-fledged adults can even purchase handguns through unlicensed, private sales. While the appellate court addressed this fact, it nonetheless ruled that history supports the restrictions. Judge Edward Prado wrote for the court:

To be sure, we are unable to divine the Founders' specific views on whether 18-to-20-year-olds had a stronger claim than 17-year-olds to the Second Amendment guarantee. The Founders may not even have shared a collective view on such a subtle and fine-grained distinction. The important point is that there is considerable historical evidence of age- and safety-based restrictions on the ability to access arms. Modern restrictions on the ability of persons under 21 to purchase handguns--and the ability of persons under 18 to possess handguns--seem, to us, to be firmly historically rooted.

David Thompson, representing the NRA and the individual plaintiffs in the case, said the ruling is inconsistent with the Supreme Court's 2008 D.C. v. Heller ruling, which struck down a D.C. rule prohibiting residents from owning a handgun inside the district, Texas Lawyer reports. "In Heller the Supreme Court was crystal clear that the sole touchstone of the Second Amendment are the history and text of the amendment, and here the history is crystal clear: that 18, 19 and 20-year-olds at the time of the founding had the right to purchase fire arms. And the court relegated the mountain of historical evidence on that to a footnote," Thompson said.

The NRA hasn't officially announced if it will appeal, but -- let's be honest here -- we're talking about the NRA. Of course it will appeal. The real question is whether it will be through an en banc rehearing petition or a petition for certiorari.

Since the Heller majority remains intact, there's a good chance that the Court would hear the case. Should the NRA stop by the en banc court on its way to the Supreme Court?

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