Semiautomatic rifles are for sale at Good Guys Guns & Range on Feb. 15 in Orem, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images)
The National Rifle Association on Friday filed a lawsuit in federal district court over Florida lawmakers’ approval of a broad package of gun-control and school security measures, as the gun rights group contended the bill violates the Second Amendment of the Constitution with a provision raising the minimum age to purchase rifles from 18 to 21.
Florida lawmakers passed the new regulations in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a high school in Parklan, Fla., that left 17 students and educators dead. The provisions include a ban on bump stocks, a three-day waiting period for gun purchases and a new age limit of 21 for all rifle purchases.
The Parkland shooter legally purchased the military-style rifle used in the attack from a federally licensed gun dealer when he was 18. While federal law sets an age limit of 21 for all handgun purchases from federally licensed dealers, the federal age limit for purchases of long guns is 18.
That age difference has become a flash point in gun policy debates following the Parkland shooting. Florida’s new law makes it one of just three states, including Illinois and Hawaii, that set an age limit of 21 for rifle purchases.
The NRA maintains that Florida’s new age limit violates the constitutional rights of young adults, alleging that it prohibits “an entire class of law-abiding, responsible citizens from fully exercising the right to keep and bear arms—namely, adults who have reached the age of 18 but are not yet 21.”
The group further notes that “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. At 18, citizens are eligible to serve in the military—to fight and die by arms for the country.”
The issues at stake are similar to those raised in a previous federal lawsuit the NRA brought alleging the federal prohibition on handgun purchases by individuals under the age of 21 is “a categorical burden on the fundamental right [of young adults] to keep and bear arms.”
But the federal courts did not see it that way. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in that case that age restrictions on handgun purchases were “consistent with a longstanding tradition of targeting select groups’ ability to access and to use arms for the sake of public safety.”
When Congress set the age limit for handgun purchases as part of the Gun Control Act of 1968, it did so because it reasoned that young adults between the ages of 18 and 20 “tend to be relatively immature and that denying them easy access to handguns would deter violent crime,” the court found.
The NRA appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the court declined to review the case, letting the appeals court’s ruling stand. It also declined to review a lower court decision that let stand a Texas law prohibiting 18- to 20-year-olds from carrying guns in public.
At the time those denials were issued, longtime Supreme Court observer Lyle Denniston noted that “the Court is not, as yet, ready to stop lower courts from creating an entirely new group in society with less than full gun rights. In those cases, it was youths aged eighteen to twenty years old.”
In more recent years the Supreme Court has also allowed other state-level restrictions on gun ownership to stand: an assault-weapons ban in Maryland, a 10-day waiting period for gun purchases in California and a ban on the open carrying of guns in Florida, to name a few.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the Second Amendment “guarantee[s] the individual right to possess and carry” firearms. But since then the Supreme Court has generally let lower courts determine what types of restrictions on gun ownership remain permissible under that interpretation.
With the new NRA lawsuit in Florida, federal courts will once again have the chance to review the extent to which the Second Amendment allows for age limits on firearm purchases.