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Federal appeals court hears arguments on Florida ban on gun sales to those under 21

A U.S. federal courtroom sits empty in 2017 in Honolulu. A new study finds that judges with backgrounds as prosecutors or corporate lawyers are more likely to rule in favor of employers.
Jennifer Sinco Kelleher
A U.S. federal courtroom sits empty in 2017 in Honolulu.

The National Rifle Association is urging a federal appeals court to strike down a Florida law that bans people under the age of 21 from buying guns. A lower court upheld the measure, which state lawmakers passed in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

During a hearing at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Miami on Thursday, an attorney for the NRA argued the law violates Second Amendment and equal protection rights.

“The right in Florida has been turned into a privilege for a few and that is not a right at all,” NRA attorney John Sweeney said.

But as Judge Charles Wilson pointed out, under the policy, people under 21 can still own guns, for instance if given one as a gift by a family member. They just can’t purchase firearms themselves.

Sweeney argued that the policy is particularly limiting for 18- to 20-year-olds serving in the military.

“At 18 years of age, law-abiding citizens in this country are considered adults for almost all purposes and certainly for the purposes of the exercise of fundamental constitutional rights,” attorneys for the NRA wrote in court documents.

“This blanket ban violates the fundamental rights of thousands of responsible, law-abiding Florida citizens and is thus invalid under the Second and Fourteenth Amendments,” they wrote.

But as Judge Robin Rosenbaum pointed out during Thursday’s hearing, there are exemptions under the law for those in uniform.

Representing the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, attorney Christopher Baum referenced the longstanding restrictions on gun access for people with felony convictions, those who have been adjudicated to be mentally ill, or have committed certain domestic violence offenses.

Baum argued that there’s an even longer history of limiting access to firearms based on age.

“Age restrictions are much older and have a much stronger historical tradition,” Baum said.

The state has also argued that people under 21 constitute a high risk group who are much more likely to act impulsively.

“[T]he unrebutted scientific evidence establishes that 18-to-20-year-olds are substantially more likely to engage in impulsive, emotional and risky behaviors that offer immediate or short-term rewards, and empirical evidence bears that out in the form of a heightened level of violent crime in that age cohort,” the state argued in a court filing. “Thus, a reasonable fit exists between the Legislature’s goal of addressing gun violence and restricting 18-to-20-year-olds from purchasing firearms.”

The law was passed after a 19-year-old shooter killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

A three-judge panel is reviewing the case, which attorneys say could be impacted by a separate Second Amendment challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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