A federal appeals court sided with gun-rights activists Wednesday and struck down a California law that would keep firearms out of the hands of young adults under age 21.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that what it called California’s “almost total ban on semiautomatic” rifles for adults under 21 constitutes a “severe burden on the core Second Amendment right of self-defense in the home.”
U.S. Circuit Judges Ryan Nelson and Kenneth K. Lee — both Donald Trump appointees — ruled to partially reverse the district court’s decision which allowed two California laws to remain in effect.
California law restricts the sale of most firearms to persons under age 21, but creates an exception for sales of long guns to young adults who 1) have a hunting license; 2) are peace officers, federal law enforcement agents, or carry firearms for their work; or 3) are active or honorably discharged members of the military. While handguns for the under-21 set have been banned for years in the Golden State, stricter age limits for long guns were adopted in 2018 in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
California also bans semiautomatic centerfire rifles to anyone under 21 with exemptions for police or military troops, but not for those with hunting licenses.
Gun advocacy group Firearms Policy Coalition (FPC) challenged the laws in California, and has similar lawsuits pending in other states. FPC brought the case on behalf of Matthew Jones, a San Diego young adult who wished to purchase a gun without first obtaining a hunting license.
The district court ruled that California’s restrictions were acceptable under constitutional standards, and noted the long history of individuals under 21 being treated as minors with lesser rights than those enjoyed by adults.
In the 55-page opinion reversing the district court, Nelson began the majority opinion with words of praise for young patriots past:
America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army. Today we reaffirm that our Constitution still protects the right that enabled their sacrifice: the right of young adults to keep and bear arms.
Nelson went on to write at length about the history of colonial militias, which generally included men starting at age 16. Combining colonial history with 19th and 20th century history relating to the age of majority, the panel concluded that the Constitution affords young adults the right to keep and bear arms.
“Because that right includes the right to purchase arms,” wrote Nelson, “both California laws burden conduct within the scope of the Second Amendment.”
The panel found that strict scrutiny applies to the long gun regulation while intermediate scrutiny applies to the semiautomatic rifle ban. Nelson reasoned that, “It’s one thing to say that young adults must take a course and purchase a hunting license before obtaining certain firearms,” but that requiring young adults to become police or military personnel “is no exception at all,” and amounts to “a blanket ban for everyone except police officers and servicemembers.”
Judge Nelson called California’s gun regulation “a severe burden on the core Second Amendment right of self-defense in the home.” He commented that young adults are already prevented from buying “the quintessential self-defense weapon,” referring to handguns.
“[T]his ban now stops them from buying semiautomatic rifles, leaving only shotguns,” he continued, slamming California for leaving its young adults with access only to “a self-defense weapon which is not ideal or even usable in many scenarios.”
The two-judge majority applied the requisite scrutiny to each of California’s regulations, and noted that the state’s argued interest in maintaining public safety was not an entirely unconvincing justification for the intrusion on Second Amendment rights.
“Though public safety is important, firearms were also dangerous in 1791, when the Second Amendment was ratified, and the government then also had an interest in promoting public safety,” Nelson wrote.
The court upheld the provision relating to long guns, finding that although it was “neither narrowly tailored nor the least restrictive means” to achieve the state’s goal, it did amount to “sensible firearm control” and could withstand intermediate scrutiny on that basis.
For the stricter regulation applying to semiautomatic rifles, however, the court found that California’s law could not survive strict scrutiny — but also noted that even if the lesser intermediate scrutiny were to apply, the regulation would fail that test too. According to the panel, the problem is that California’s law “regulates so much more conduct than necessary to achieve its goal” that it “is unlikely to be a reasonable fit for California’s objectives.”
Judge Lee authored a six-page concurrence in which he praise his colleague’s “excellent opinion” and warned that “California’s legal position has no logical stopping point and would ultimately erode fundamental rights enumerated in our Constitution.”
In dissent was U.S. District Court Judge Sidney H. Stein, a Bill Clinton appointee who and is sitting by designation on the Court of Appeals.
Judge Stein wrote a lengthy (though only partial) dissent in which he agreed with the majority on the long-gun regulation, but disagreed regarding semiautomatic rifles. Stein said that neither regulation constituted a categorical ban.
To provide context, Stein referred to the 2019 shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California, which had been carried out with a semiautomatic rifle by a 19-year-old. Ultimately, Stein concluded that “California’s objective of promoting public safety and reducing gun violence is a significant, important one.” He also noted that California already allows young adults to use semiautomatic rifles for self-defense or a number of other lawful purposes, and allows them to receive guns that are gifted or loaned to them.
Stein took issue with the majority’s reliance on colonial history. While 16-year-olds might indeed have served in the militia, he explained, both the court’s majority and the plaintiffs are mistaken in equating the age of military service with the age for firearm sales.
Further, Stein remarked that modern understanding of young-adult brain development supports California’s arguments:
Beyond these significant safety concerns, contemporary scientific research increasingly sheds light on the relative immaturity and incomplete cognitive development of young adults. California cites to evidence that young adults are less mature than older adults, which leads them to take more risks and behave more reactively than their elders. Young adults are thus quicker to anger than older adults and more vulnerable to intense mood swings and to making instinctive, rather than considered, decisions. This cognitive immaturity makes young adults more likely to use firearms in situations of significant emotional arousal or perceived threat, or other situations that require rapid, complex information processing.
Attorney General Rob Bonta has not publicly said whether it will seek en banc review of the panel’s ruling.
“We are reviewing the decision,” a spokesperson from Bonta’s office told Law&Crime. “California will continue to take all necessary steps to prevent and reduce gun violence. We remain committed to defending California’s commonsense gun laws, which save lives and make our communities safer.”
“Today’s decision confirms that peaceable legal adults cannot be prohibited from acquiring firearms and exercising their rights enshrined in the Second Amendment,” FPC Vice President of Programs Adam Kraut said in a statement about the ruling.
Read the full 9th Circuit opinion below.
[image via Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]
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