TALLAHASSEE — While saying the case “falls squarely in the middle of a constitutional no man’s land,” a federal judge has upheld a 2018 Florida law that prevents people under age 21 from buying guns.
The 48-page ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker came more than three years after the Republican-controlled Legislature and then-Gov. Rick Scott rushed to approve the restriction following a massacre at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people.
The National Rifle Association challenged the constitutionality of the law, which prevented the sale of rifles, shotguns and other long guns to people ages 18 to 20. Federal law already barred sales of handguns to people under 21.
Walker, in ruling last week, traced historical gun restrictions and court decisions and said he was following legal precedent. In part, he focused on a landmark 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case known as District of Columbia v. Heller.
While the Heller case is broadly considered a major victory for gun-rights supporters, it also said certain “longstanding prohibitions” about guns do not violate the Second Amendment, according to Walker’s ruling.
The Heller case cited prohibitions on such things as felons and mentally ill people possessing guns, Walker concluded that restrictions on 18-to-20-year-old people buying guns were “analogous” to the restrictions cited in the Heller case.
“In short, Heller’s listed regulations are similar to restrictions on the purchase of firearms by 18-to-20-year-olds; all target specific groups that are thought to be especially dangerous with firearms,” he wrote.
But Walker’s ruling also raised questions about the law, which would not prevent people under age 21 from, for example, receiving guns from family members. Walker acknowledged a “colossal challenge” that lawmakers faced after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting.
“That said, this court has grave concerns about the balance the Legislature struck,” Walker wrote. “While the act appears broad on its face, as defendant (the state) argues, many 18-to-20-year-olds who wish to obtain a firearm will be able to do so through parents or other relatives. Whether this is an effective check on rash decision-making, this court cannot say. But it is clear that this law will have little impact on many, if not most, 18-to-20-year-old Floridians. In short, then, it is not clear how much the act does to prevent tragedies like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.”
Walker also raised questions about how the law would apply to people who cannot get guns from relatives.
“Worse still, it is likely that these particular 18-to-20-year-olds are the ones who actually need firearms to defend themselves; they are likely independent, likely to live in dangerous neighborhoods, and likely to have families and children of their own,” he wrote. “Why should the 20-year-old single mother living on her own be unable to obtain a firearm for self-defense when a 20-year-old living with their parents can easily obtain one?”
The ban on gun sales to people under 21 was part of a wide-ranging bill passed after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz was accused of using a semi-automatic weapon during the shooting spree at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, his former high school. Cruz continues to await trial on murder charges.
In a court document last year, the NRA contended that the law violates Second Amendment and equal-protection rights.
“While Florida has an interest in promoting public safety, particularly in schools, it cannot show that the ban is the least restrictive means to advance that interest. Nor could any ban be,” NRA lawyers wrote. “The ban infringes the right of all 18-to-20-year-olds to purchase firearms for the exercise of their Second Amendment rights, even for self-defense in the home. The ban does not just limit the right, it obliterates it. The ban could not possibly be the least restrictive alternative. Nor is there evidence in the record that the Legislature considered the availability of less restrictive alternatives.”
But attorneys for the state wrote that people ages 18 to 20 are a “particularly high-risk group” and pointed to scientific evidence about impulsive and risky behavior.
“Empirical evidence bears out that because 18-to-20-year-olds are uniquely likely to engage in impulsive, emotional, and risky behaviors that offer immediate or short-term rewards, drawing the line for legal purchase of firearms at 21 is a reasonable method of addressing the Legislature’s public safety concerns,” the state’ said in a court document.