RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Wednesday threw out a ruling that found a law banning licensed firearms dealers from selling handguns to young adults under 21 is unconstitutional.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled that the case is now moot because the woman who sued to challenge the constitutionality of the federal law has now turned 21 and is of age to legally purchase a handgun from a dealer.
The same panel of judges had ruled 2-1 in July that the 1968 federal law banning people ages 18 to 20 from purchasing a handgun from a licensed dealer was unconstitutional. It found that the law violated the Second Amendment right to bear arms, which the panel called a “cherished constitutional right” that vests at age 18. But in a unanimous ruling Wednesday, the judges said that because plaintiff Natalia Marshall is now 21, she no longer has a legally recognized interest in the outcome of the case.
“Once she turned 21, nothing prohibited her from buying the handgun she desired from a dealer of her choice. So her original claims are now moot,” Judge Julius Richardson wrote for the panel.
Marshall was an 18-year-old student at the University of Virginia when she filed the lawsuit, saying she wanted a handgun as protection from an abusive ex-boyfriend. Another plaintiff joined the suit but he has also turned 21.
Marshall’s attorney, Elliott Harding, said the plaintiffs are disappointed “that the system continues to deny their equal access to fundamental liberties simply because of their youth.”
“It is unfortunate that the Government will evade the repercussions of the Court’s (earlier) thorough ruling simply because the nature of the laws at issue allow them to escape final review through our lengthy litigation process,” Harding said.
He said the plaintiffs are considering “all of their options for additional review,” which include asking the U.S. Supreme Court or the full 4th Circuit to hear the case.
“Regardless of how these immediate issues may be resolved, these laws will continue to be challenged one way or another until liberty is ultimately restored,” Harding said.
The Justice Department had asked the 4th Circuit to rehear the case after the first panel ruling in July found the law unconstitutional.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who supported the government’s request that the 4th Circuit reconsider its first ruling, said he and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh believed that the finding that the law was unconstitutional was legally incorrect.
“From the outset, we believed that the panel had gotten this one wrong,” Herring said in a statement. “Handguns are too often the weapon of choice for dangerous individuals who may want to harm themselves, an intimate partner, or even commit a crime. With this decision, this constitutional, longstanding gun safety law that has kept Virginians and our communities safe for decades will remain on the books.”
Although the 1968 law bars federally licensed dealers from selling handguns to people under age 21, those 18 and over are still permitted under federal law to purchase handguns from a private party. They also are allowed to buy long guns from a dealer.