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Whoops—No Gun Rights for Adults Under 21 After All, Says Court

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Reason Roundup

Elizabeth Nolan Brown | 9.23.2021 9:37 AM

Does the Second Amendment apply to 18–20-year-olds? Back in July, a federal appeals court said yes. But now, the court has taken back its earlier ruling.

The case—Hirschfeld v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosivessaw two young adults challenging a federal law that treats 18–20-year-olds like children, banning federally licensed firearms dealers from selling handguns or handgun ammunition to them.

This decades-old rule is unconstitutional, said judges with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in July. "Despite the weighty interest in reducing crime and violence, we refuse to relegate either the Second Amendment or 18- to 20-year-olds to a second-class status," the judges wrote in their 2–1 decision. It was a win for Natalia Marshall and Tanner Hirschfeld, who brought the lawsuit, as well as for gun rights—and treating legal adults like adults, not children—more broadly.

"Our nation's most cherished constitutional rights vest no later than 18," the judges pointed out. "And the Second Amendment's right to keep and bear arms is no different." (See more on the July ruling here.)

On Wednesday, however, the 4th Circuit vacated its earlier ruling and remanded the case to the district court with instructions to dismiss.

"The Justice Department had asked the full court to reconsider the decision and said the panel got it wrong," notes The Washington Post. What was done in the past "in no way suggests a recognition of an unfettered right of minors to purchase their own firearms for personal self-defense," the Department of Justice (DOJ) said—completely conflating young adults with children.

The DOJ's stance here represents a larger movement to strip adult status from 18–20-year-olds.

Upon reconsideration, a panel of appeals court judges decided that because Marshall turned 21 before the earlier ruling went into effect (and Hirschfeld had turned 21 before the decision was issued), the whole thing is moot.

"Here, Marshall challenged the prohibition on buying a handgun from a federally licensed firearms dealer while she was under 21. 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," the judges wrote. They also rejected Marshall and her lawyers' attempts to revive the case:

To try to breathe new life into her claims after they became moot, Marshall alleged for the first time that she wishes to sell handguns to friends under 21. Those private sales would not typically be affected by the challenged laws and regulations. But Marshall seeks to bring those sales within this court's purview by alleging that she wishes to use a federally licensed firearm dealer to facilitate the sales (by, for example, running background checks on her friends). This newly alleged injury was raised for the first time on appeal, and only after the case became moot, so we refuse to consider it here.

A second effort to revive this case by adding new parties also fails. Surely recognizing the mootness concern, Plaintiff's attorney moved in the district court on July 24—the day before Marshall turned 21—to join new parties that might keep the case alive. But the district court lacked jurisdiction to grant the motion.

But none of this should be taken as denouncing the original case, the judges point out:

We cannot assign fault to either party here. Marshall was bound to turn 21 in time. And though the efforts to remedy mootness came at the eleventh hour, they do not reflect any fault in Marshall's original case. So our decision turns on the public interest.

Alas, the "public interest still favors vacating the opinions," largely........

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