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Appeals court: Longstanding federal ban on selling handguns to adults ages 18-21 is ruled unconstitutional




The U.S. Appeals Court for the Fourth Circuit overturned a ban on selling handguns to those under 21, ruling that the Second Amendment should apply to legal adults regardless of age.


Quick Facts



At age 18, an American can go to war, vote, buy a lottery ticket or tobacco, be tried as an adult, and even purchase a rifle. What they cannot do is purchase a handgun. That’s due to a 1968 law signed by President Lyndon Johnson that bans selling handguns to anyone under 21.


That law was ruled unconstitutional on Tuesday by a three-judge panel from the Fourth Circuit of Appeals. Judge Julius Richardson wrote, “When do constitutional rights vest? At 18 or 21? 16 or 25? Why not 13 or 33? 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.”


He added, “Looking through this historical lens to the text and structure of the Constitution reveals that 18- to 20-year-olds have Second Amendment rights. Virtually every other constitutional right applies whatever the age. And the Second Amendment is no different.”


Richardson argued that the court would not “relegate either the Second Amendment or 18-to-20-year-olds to a second-class status.”


Judge James Wynn Jr. dissented, writing,


“Indeed, in a country that boasts a Congress, bench, bar, academy, and electorate that are all attentive to the prerogatives of gun owners, where many may conceal their weapons, carry them openly, or ‘stand their ground,’ and where civilian gun ownership rates are second to none, the majority’s second-class status concern is simply surreal. No, the Second Amendment is exceptional not because it is uniquely oppressed or imperiled, but rather because it is singularly capable of causing harm.”


This is the latest in a series of wins for supporters of Second Amendment rights. In early June, a federal judge overturned a 32-year-old California ban on AR-15s and rifles, calling it a “failed experiment.” And in April, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to New York’s restriction on concealed carry. The latter is the first major Second Amendment case before the Supreme Court in some time.


Many of these recent wins are turning on the Supreme Court’s landmark 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which affirmed Americans’ natural right to own a gun, unconnected with service in the militia, for lawful purposes, including for self-defense inside the home.



The age-related restriction on purchasing handguns is an arbitrary one. Restricting an adult’s freedom based on their age is wrong. An 18-year-old is not a child, and if they are able to purchase a rifle, why not a handgun?


What is surreal is not the argument that this law render adults under 21 second class citizens, but that Judge Wynn would not understand that the Second Amendment is consistently infringed — which has necessitated all the legislative action that he mentioned in his dissent to guard against the infringement of Second Amendment rights, such as “stand your ground” laws. In fact, these measures are redundant considering that the Second Amendment — as affirmed by Heller — grants Americans the right to bear arms and to defend their homes.


The bottom line is that in a free society that defines legal adulthood as the day someone turns 18 years old, an 18-year-old has the same right to exercise their constitutional right to defend himself or herself as a 21-year-old or a 50-year-old or an 80-year-old. It is laudable that a Federal appeals court panel has finally recognized this.