Federal judge in Virginia rules against government ban on handgun sales to adults age 18-20

May 12, 2023
Ben Marquis

A federal judge in Virginia ruled on Wednesday that the federal prohibition on the sale of handguns to individuals under the age of 21 was likely an unconstitutional violation of the Second Amendment, the Washington Examiner reported.

The case, known as Fraser v. BATFE, involved a 20-year-old man named John Cory Fraser -- and other "similarly situated" plaintiffs -- who had attempted to buy a handgun from a licensed dealer but was denied due to federal law.

Second Amendment includes ages 18-20, covers purchase of weapons

In his ruling, Virginia U.S. District Judge Robert Payne cited extensively the Supreme Court's Bruen decision in 2022 that substantially altered how courts approach the Second Amendment with a two-step process that includes first determining if the conduct or law in question is covered by the Second Amendment and, if so, if there are sufficient historical traditions or analogs from around the Founding era to support the conduct or law.

At issue here is the age of the plaintiffs, between 18-20, and whether the act of purchasing a firearm was covered by the Second Amendment.

Payne swiftly dealt with both by determining that 18-20-year-olds, due to their eligibility for militia and military service, were considered to be adults and not "minors," and therefore are part of "the people" as referenced in the Amendment, as well as that buying a firearm is an integral part of the Amendment's guarantee of the right "to keep and bear" arms.

No historical tradition, therefore, prohibition "cannot stand"

With that established, Judge Payne moved on to the historical tradition stage of the Bruen inquiry but found that the government -- as well as gun control groups who joined the lawsuit in support of the prohibition -- had failed to provide any meaningful evidence of any sort of "age-based restrictions on the purchase or sale of firearms from the colonial era, Founding, or Early Republic."

In fact, old laws regarding militia service put forward by the government only served to further confirm that 18-year-olds, and in some cases even 16-year-olds, were considered old enough during that era to serve in the militia -- a requisite of which was providing one's own firearm and ammunition.

The government did dig up a couple of old laws from the 1850s in Alabama and Tennessee that prohibited the provision of certain weapons to "minors," but those laws didn't specify an age limit and were too far from the Founding Era to merit much weight on their own.

In the end, the judge concluded, "Because the statutes and regulations in question are not consistent with our Nation's history and tradition, they, therefore, cannot stand."

Ruling hasn't taken effect yet, will likely be appealed

The Washington Post reported that, in response to Judge Payne's ruling, the Justice Department declined to comment at all while a spokesperson for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives simply said that the ATF "is unable to comment on litigation."

However, an attorney for one of the gun control groups, William Clark of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, was not so constrained, and told The Post, "It’s a significant decision -- we disagree with the outcome," and added, "there is compelling scientific evidence showing that teenagers are more impulsive and face unique elevated dangers from firearms."

Elliot Harding, an attorney for plaintiff Fraser, also issued a statement to the outlet that said, "We’re pleased the court ruled in favor of Mr. Fraser and the other named plaintiffs in such a well-written and thorough decision."

"Even though it ensures that future buyers can now purchase these firearms in the federal system, one that includes background checks and other requirements, we expect the defendants will appeal. Nevertheless, we remain optimistic that the decision will be affirmed in due course," he added.

However, in addition to the almost certain appeal of this decision, Harding also noted that Judge Payne hadn't yet issued a final order on that matter and instead set a date of May 18 for recommendations on "future proceedings," meaning 18-20-year-olds can't yet rely on this ruling to go out and legally purchase a handgun from a federally licensed firearms dealer.

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