A federal district court judge from the Northern District of West Virginia ruled that banning 18 to 20-year-olds from buying handguns from federal firearms licensees (FFLs) is unconstitutional.
The case, Brown v. the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), was filed in September 2022 by two West Virginia citizens named Steven Brown and Benjamin Weekley, the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF), and West Virginia Citizens Defense League (WVCDL). Both men are under 21 years old and want to buy handguns and handgun ammunition from FFLs.
The current law prevents anyone under the age of 21 from buying handguns from FFLs. Although there is no federal law blocking 18 to 20-year-olds from buying handguns, current regulations stop anyone under 21 from going through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for a handgun.
After the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision, “means end scrutiny” was ended. The government could no longer use “public safety” to add restrictions to the Second Amendment. The government can only use the original text, tradition, and history of the Second Amendment to determine if a law is constitutional.
Judge Thomas S. Kleeh first addressed who is considered “the people.” He used historical references to formulate that “the people” consist of any law-abiding resident 18 and older. He stated that other areas of the U.S. Constitution named specific ages, such as the age to become President, but the founders chose not to specify an age for gun rights. He believes that if the founders wanted a higher age restriction, they would have added one in the Second Amendment.
“For example, minimum age requirements are constitutionally imposed on membership in the House of Representatives (25 years of age), the United States Senate (30 years age) and, of course, the office of President of the United States (35 years of age),” Judge kleeh stated. “Clearly, the authors of the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights contemplated age restrictions during their drafting work. The Second Amendment only refers to ‘the people.’”
The government tried to argue that the founding era was not when the Second Amendment was ratified. It claimed that the founding era was in 1868 when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. For their reasoning, the government cited a three-judge panel decision from the Eleven Circuit Court of Appeals in the NRA v. Bondi case in a notice of supplemental authority.
Judge Kleeh pointed out that the plaintiffs in Bondi were granted an en banc review, meaning the entire Eleventh Circuit Court would hear the case. He also pointed out that when an en banc review is granted, the panel decision is vacated, meaning it is like it never happened. He also pointed out that even though the government had months to address the en banc review, it chose not to do so. The judge himself believes that the founding era was around 1791, when the Second Amendment was ratified.
“[T]he Bondi decision was vacated on July 14, 2023, when the Eleventh Circuit granted a petition for rehearing and decided to rehear the case en banc,” the judge wrote. “Thus, the authority to which Defendants point the Court is no longer “authority.” To date, Defendants have inexplicably failed to update or withdraw their Notice of Supplemental Authority despite the fact that the Eleventh Circuit opinion—published over four months ago—vacates the Bondi panel’s opinion and dedicates significant time in their papers discounting the Fourth Circuit’s Hirschfeld opinion for the same reason.”
The judge stated that the ATF did not provide any laws from the founding era that could be used as an analogue for the 18-20-year-old handgun ban. The closest law to the founding era that the government provided was a law from 1856. Judge Kleeh said the law was too far removed from the founding era.
The government tried to argue that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue over the law. Lawyers for the ATF claimed that the plaintiffs could get their parents to buy the firearms and then gift the guns to them. The government reasoned they could still receive guns, meaning the plaintiffs could not sue over the law. The judge resoundingly rejected the government’s arguments over standing.
SAF and WVCDL were happy with the judge’s decision. SAF leadership pointed out how the government could not defend its position. It also pointed out how 18-year-olds can join the military and have adult responsibilities. An 18-year-old can join the military and be assigned a side arm and a machine gun but can not purchase a .22LR pistol under the law.
“This is a huge victory for Second Amendment rights, especially for young adults,” said SAF Executive Director Adam Kraut. “The Biden Justice Department argued that people in this age group were not adults, which was patently ludicrous. The government simply could not defend the constitutionality of the handgun prohibition, and Judge Kleeh’s ruling makes that clear.”
“There was never any historical evidence supporting this arbitrary ban on the purchase and ownership of handguns by young adults,” noted SAF founder and Executive Vice President Alan M. Gottlieb. “As we maintained all along, history goes in the opposite direction. At that age historically, young adults were considered mature enough to serve in the militia, the military and take on other responsibilities. We’re delighted with the judge’s ruling.”
The judge also did not think that a stay on his decision was warranted, so his ruling is in effect for the plaintiffs and other qualified 18-20-year-olds. The government is expected to appeal the decision and request an emergency stay.
This decision is another defeat for the ATF. This year has been one of the worst years for the ATF in the courts. The ATF has also lost court battles on bump stocks, pistol braces, forced reset triggers, frames and receivers, and various other matters.
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About John Crump
John is a NRA instructor and a constitutional activist; he has written about firearms and interviewed people of all walks of life. Mr. Crump lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and sons and can be followed on X at @crumpyss, or at www.crumpy.com.