A federal appeals court on Tuesday narrowly rejected a request from the National Rifle Association to rehear a case challenging the constitutionality of federal laws banning licensed firearms dealers from selling handguns to people younger than 21.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans rejected the request to hear the case before the full court on an 8-7 vote, one day after a three-judge panel upheld the laws as constitutional. All three judges on the panel that ruled Monday voted against rehearing the case.
"Congress could have sought to prohibit all persons under 21 from possessing handguns — or all guns, for that matter," Judge Edward C. Prado wrote in the opinion upholding the law. "But Congress deliberately adopted a calibrated, compromise approach."
Judge Edith H. Jones, joined by five others, wrote a lengthy dissent in response.
"Surely this is hyperbole?" Judge Jones wrote. "Never in the modern era has the Supreme Court held that a fundamental constitutional right could be abridged for a law-abiding adult class of citizens."
"Moreover, the implications of the decision — that a whole class of adult citizens, who are not as a class felons or mentally ill, can have its constitutional rights truncated because Congress considers the class 'irresponsible' — are far-reaching," Judge Jones wrote.
The lawsuit, filed by several people from the ages of 18 to 20 at the time and the NRA against U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 2010, argues that the federal laws constitute "a significant, unequal, and impermissible burden on the right to keep and bear arms of a class of millions of law-abiding 18-to-20 year-old adult citizens."
Later filings argue that the NRA's licensed gun dealer members are harmed by the ban as well, since it prohibits them from making lawful handgun and ammunition sales to 18- to 20-year-olds.
Judge Prado, though, wrote that people who are at least 18 years old can own "long guns," or rifles, can possess and use handguns, and can receive them as gifts from parents or guardians. He also cited federal statistics showing comparatively high crime rates among 18- to 20-year-olds, writing that since the ban was passed in 1968, "its objective has retained its reasonableness. The threat posed by 18-to-20-year-olds with easy access to handguns endures."
The NRA said it has more than 11,000 members who are affected by the ban.
David H. Thompson, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said the team is weighing their appellate options going forward and didn't rule out a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We were very gratified by Judge Jones' excellent opinion and we were only disappointed that it didn't garner an additional vote," he said Tuesday.
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