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New plea for gun rights (UPDATED)

UPDATED Thursday 11:07 a.m.  The petition, with the lower court opinions attached, is now available, and can be read here.  It is a large file.


The National Rifle Association and two individuals under the age of twenty-one have asked the Supreme Court to strike down a federal law that bans licensed gun dealers from selling handguns to minors.  A federal appeals court upheld that law, ruling that Congress was justified in believing that easy commercial access to pistols for teenagers leads to violent crime.

The new case, NRA v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (docket 13-137), raises one of the broadest challenges to a gun control law to reach the Court in the five years since the Second Amendment was interpreted to protect a personal right to have a gun, at least for self-defense.

Under a law that dates to 1968, Congress imposed a series of limitations on access to guns for anyone under the age of twenty-one.  The only restriction specifically at issue in the new case is a ban on purchasing a handgun from a federally licensed gun dealer, for anyone who is eighteen, nineteen, or twenty years old.

The law does not ban those in that age group from obtaining guns, or even from obtaining handguns.   They may get such a weapon from their parents or a guardian, and may even buy a handgun in a private sale.  They may also buy  a rifle or shotgun from a licensed dealer.  What is banned altogether is the purchase of a handgun from a dealer — the source that the NRA told the Court is “the most common” and “most logical.”

The NRA and two nineteen-year-olds who joined in the challenge filed their petition after the Fifth Circuit Court had split eight to seven in refusing to reconsider the ban that had been upheld by a unanimous three-judge Circuit panel.  In upholding Congress’s power to single out a specific group in society for curbing its gun rights, the panel had raised doubts about whether young adults between the ages of eighteen to twenty are protected by the Second Amendment.

“Congress,” it said, “found that persons under 21 tend to be relatively irresponsible and can be prone to violent crime, especially when they have easy access to handguns….The Second Amendment, at its core, protects law-abiding, responsible citizens.” (italics in the original)

But, the panel concluded, even if some minors are covered by the right to have a gun, Congress had the authority to limit their commercial access to the type of weapon most often involved in violent crimes.  The Supreme Court, it noted, had itself said that Second Amendment rights were not absolute, and could be denied to some in society.

Since the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, establishing a personal Second Amendment right to have a gun for self-defense, and its 2010 decision in McDonald v. Chicago, extending that right all across the country at the state and local level, the Court has not granted review of any new gun control case.   In fact, it has turned down at least six such challenges by gun rights advocates to federal or state restrictions.

The NRA and two minors, Andrew M. Payne and Katherine Taggart, contended in their appeal that the panel decision “is part of a recurring trend of obstinate resistance” to the Supreme Court’s declaration that the Second Amendment protects “a fundamental right.”

Instead of seeing courts engage in “serious scrutiny” of gun rights restrictions, the petition argued, “the years since the Heller decision have been marked by intransigence by governments and courts that at best have simply been unable to break habits formed during pre-Heller days and at worst are engaged in massive resistance to this Court’s decisions.”

The federal government will get a chance to respond to the petition before the Court acts upon it, during the Justices’ new Term that starts in October.

(NOTE TO READERS: The NRA petition is not yet available in electronic format.  The blog will post it as soon as it obtains a copy.)

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, New plea for gun rights (UPDATED), SCOTUSblog (Jul. 31, 2013, 8:37 PM),