A federal judge in Virginia has declared unconstitutional a set of laws and regulations that prohibit federally licensed firearms dealers from selling handguns to 18-to-20-year-olds, finding that the measures violated the Second Amendment.

“Because the statutes and regulations in question are not consistent with our Nation’s history and tradition, they, therefore, cannot stand,” U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne, who sits in Richmond, concluded in a 71-page opinion.

Gun-control advocates say the decision, if allowed to stand, would significantly increase gun access for a population that research shows is more impulsive and responsible for a disproportionate number of fatal shootings. But attorneys on both sides of the case said they expected the Justice Department to appeal and request a stay, which would prevent Payne’s ruling from taking effect while higher courts weigh the case.

Elliott M. Harding, the attorney who argued to nullify the laws and regulations, said people under 21 years old are, for the moment, not allowed to purchase handguns from licensed dealers because a final order had not been entered. The judge set a May 18 deadline for attorneys to submit recommendations “for future proceedings in this matter.”

Although 18-to-20-year-olds previously could buy handguns in private sales – or have a parent purchase a weapon for them – the decision issued Wednesday would dismantle a legal framework that for decades has prevented licensed dealers from selling handguns “to teenagers,” said William T. Clark, an attorney with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which filed an amicus brief in the case calling for the laws at issue to be upheld.

“It’s a significant decision – we disagree with the outcome,” Clark said, adding that “there is compelling scientific evidence showing that teenagers are more impulsive and face unique elevated dangers from firearms.”

Attorneys in the case noted that 18-year-olds already were allowed to purchase some firearms such as shotguns and rifles – but not handguns sold by the nation’s nearly 53,000 licensed dealers, as tallied by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Payne, who was nominated to the bench by President George H.W. Bush, repeatedly cited the Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, a ruling from the high court’s conservative majority that expanded the right to bear arms last year.

The plaintiff in the Virginia case, John Corey Fraser, was 20 years old when he attempted to buy a Glock 19x handgun from a federally licensed dealer in May 2022 and was turned away, according to the lawsuit he filed last year. He challenged the constitutionality of the Gun Control Act of 1968 and federal regulations from the ATF that limit the sale of handguns to adults 21 years and older.

“We’re pleased the court ruled in favor of Mr. Fraser and the other named plaintiffs in such a well written and thorough decision,” Harding, the attorney for Fraser, said in an email. “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.”

An ATF spokesman said the agency “is unable to comment on litigation.” Justice Department officials declined to comment.

Attackers in some recent cases in which three or more people were shot have been under 21 years old, attorneys noted. An 18-year-old armed with a handgun in Philadelphia was charged last year in a shooting that left three people dead and 11 others wounded, according to authorities. A 19-year-old man was alleged to have live-streamed himself driving around Memphis while shooting at seemingly random targets, killing four people and injuring three others. He, too, was armed with a handgun, police said.

The massacres at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo both were carried out last year by gunmen who were 18 years old, although they were armed with AR-15-style rifles.

“Not only are guns the leading cause of death for U.S. kids and teens, but research shows us that 18- to 20-year-olds commit gun homicides at triple the rate of adults 21 years and older,” said Janet Carter, senior director of issues and appeals at Everytown Law, which also filed an amicus brief supporting the age restrictions. “The federal law prohibiting federally licensed firearms dealers from selling handguns to individuals under the age of 21 is not just an essential tool for preventing gun violence, it is also entirely constitutional. The Court’s ruling will undoubtedly put lives at risk. It must be reversed.”

According to the Bruen opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, “constitutional rights are enshrined with the scope they were understood to have when the people adopted them.” Payne wrote in his opinion Wednesday that although the age of adulthood was considered to be 21 at the time of the United States’ founding, the fact that people could join militias at 18 was more compelling.

“It is not at all clear that the age of majority at the Founding is the appropriate measure for measuring the reach of the Second Amendment,” he wrote.

Payne wrote that “no federal appellate court, much less the Supreme Court, has squarely determined that the Second Amendment’s rights vest at age 21” and that “to date, three circuits, the Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh, have looked at this question head-on and have declined to answer it.”

The judge noted that federal district courts in Louisiana and Pennsylvania, in prior cases, had accepted the Justice Department’s position that 21 years was a valid threshold for handgun purchases from federally licensed dealers. He also noted that under current laws and regulations, 18- to 20-year-olds enjoy the right to vote, may enlist in the military, lose their legal protection from the death penalty and are allowed to possess handguns that their parents or guardians bought for them. Although federal law bans the sale of alcohol and tobacco to people under the age of 21, gun rights are in the Constitution while alcohol and tobacco consumption rights are not, Payne wrote.

“If the Court were to exclude 18-to-21-year-olds from the Second Amendment’s protection, it would impose limitations on the Second Amendment that do not exist with other constitutional guarantees,” the judge added. “It is firmly established that the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eight, and Fourteenth Amendments vest before the age of 21. … Like these other rights, the Second Amendment’s protections apply to 18-to-20-year-olds.

“By adopting the Second Amendment, the people constrained both the hands of Congress and the courts to infringe upon this right by denying ordinary law-abiding citizens of this age the full enjoyment of the right to keep and bear arms unless the restriction is supported by the Nation’s history. That is what Bruen tells us.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who joined the Bruen majority, wrote in a concurring opinion last year: “Our decision, as noted, does not expand the categories of people who may lawfully possess a gun, and federal law generally forbids the possession of a handgun by a person who is under the age of 18 . . . and bars the sale of a handgun to anyone under the age of 21.”

Payne, in his opinion, wrote that the Bruen majority directs courts to conduct a historical analysis in weighing gun regulations.

“Justice Alito did not conduct a historical analysis,” Payne wrote. “Because that observation is in a concurrence and is a cursory comment at that, the Court notes it but gives it no analytical weight.”

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