Black pen and black handgun set atop a form required to purchase a firearm.

“We refuse to relegate either the Second Amendment or 18- to 20-year-olds to a second-class status.”

That’s just one of many eloquent lines from today’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit holding that a federal law that forbids gun dealers from selling handguns to 18-to-20-year-olds violates the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constition. Here are some more:

When do constitutional rights vest? At 18 or 21? 16 or 25? Why not 13 or 33? In the law, a line must sometimes be drawn. 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.

Plaintiffs seek an injunction and a declaratory judgment that several federal laws and regulations that prevent federally licensed gun dealers from selling handguns to any 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old violate the Second Amendment. We first find that 18-year-olds possess Second Amendment rights. They 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. We then ask, as our precedent requires, whether the government has met its burden to justify its infringement of those rights under the appropriate level of scrutiny. To justify this restriction, Congress used disproportionate crime rates to craft over-inclusive laws that restrict the rights of overwhelmingly law-abiding citizens. And in doing so, Congress focused on purchases from licensed dealers without establishing those dealers as the source of the guns 18- to 20-year-olds use to commit crimes. So we hold that the challenged federal laws and regulations are unconstitutional under the Second Amendment. …

Those of good faith on both sides of the gun debate wish to protect lives and uphold individual rights. We appreciate the seriousness of gun violence in this country and applaud Congress’s laudable desire to curb senseless violence. But we also recognize that the Second Amendment embodies a fundamental, pre-existing right that enables “the people” to preserve their own life, liberty, and property. Striking a balance between those interests is a difficult exercise that draws intense passions on both sides. And that is for good reason.

But while Congress—or judges—may have struck a different balance long after ratification, that role is foreclosed to us by the balance that the Founders chose. We cannot now second-guess or undermine their choice. History makes clear that 18- to 20-year-olds were understood to fall under the Second Amendment’s protections. Those over 18 were universally required to be part of the militia near the ratification, proving that they were considered part of “the people” who enjoyed Second Amendment rights, and most other constitutional rights apply to this age group. And Congress may not restrict the rights of an entire group of law-abiding adults because a minuscule portion of that group commits a disproportionate amount of gun violence. Congress’s failure to connect handgun purchases from licensed dealers to youth gun violence only serves to highlight the law’s “unduly tenuous ‘fit'” with the government’s substantial interests.

Eighteen- to twenty-year-olds have Second Amendment rights, and the challenged laws impermissibly burden those rights. As a result, we vacate the district court’s grant of the motion to dismiss, reverse the denial of summary judgment, and remand for further proceedings.

Judge Wynn dissented, making it a 2-1 ruling. Presumably the Government will ask for an en banc hearing, and, if that doesn’t go its way, it will probably appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. For now, however, this is a ringing endorsement of the Second Amendment.

Jon Guze / Senior Fellow, Legal Studies

Jon Guze is the Director of Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the John Locke Foundation, Jon practiced law in Durham, North Carolina for over twent...