“When do constitutional rights vest? At 18 or 21? 16 or 25? Why not 13 or 33?” begins a ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, that addresses whether the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 can constitutionally prohibit 18-20 year olds from purchasing handguns from licensed dealers. .
“In the law, a line must sometimes be drawn,” next says the majority ruling, written by U.S. Circuit Judge Julius Richardson, a judge who was appointed by former President Donald J. Trump. “But there must be a reason why constitutional rights cannot be enjoyed until a certain age. Our nation’s most cherished constitutional rights vest no later than 18. And the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms is no different.”
When legal propositions are stated this clearly, they tend to lead to honest opinions.
This Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision overturns a Virginia federal judge’s ruling that upheld the Gun Control Act of 1968’s restrictions on American freedom, but an appeal is expected in this 2-1 panel opinion.
Judge Richardson later wrote that 18-year-olds “enjoy almost every other constitutional right, and they were required at the time of the Founding to serve in the militia and furnish their own weapons. … 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.”
This ruling grew from a lawsuit brought, in part, by a then 19-year-old name Natalia Marshall, a University of Virginia student who wanted a handgun to protect herself from an ex-boyfriend. Vested with the other rights and responsibilities that pertain to legal adults in the U.S., Ms. Marshall simply wanted to avail herself of the same constitutionally-guaranteed means of protection that other adults enjoy.
Notably, the Gun Control Act does not prohibit young adults from obtaining rifles and shotguns from federally licensed dealers. But as the U.S. Supreme Court held in the context of Washington, D.C.’s total ban on handguns, “It is no answer to say, as petitioners do, that it is permissible to ban the possession of handguns so long as the possession of other firearms (i.e., long guns) is allowed.” That opinion continued: “It is enough to note, as we have observed, that the American people have considered the handgun to be the quintessential self-defense weapon.”
“The majority’s decision to grant the gun lobby a victory in a fight it lost on Capitol Hill more than fifty years ago is not compelled by law. Nor is it consistent with the proper role of the federal judiciary in our democratic system,” wrote Judge James Wynn Jr. in dissent.
Yet Judge Wynn’s apparent belief that the judiciary has no role to play in rectifying infringements of fundamental constitutional rights is puzzling, to say the least. A staple of first year constitutional law classes is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1803 opinion in Marbury v. Madison, which made clear, “It is emphatically the duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is.”
That’s exactly what the majority of the Fourth Circuit panel did in this case, and its carefully considered decision deserves to be upheld in any subsequent proceedings.