Appeals court rules California’s ban on teens buying semi-automatic rifles is unconstitutional

A federal appeals court on Wednesday rejected a California law banning the purchase of semi-automatic rifles by people under the age of 21, saying the ban was unconstitutional and constituted a “serious burden” on young people’s Second Amendment rights.

The law in question was passed in the months following the 2019 Poway synagogue shooting and was designed to close a loophole that could have allowed the 19-year-old gunman to buy weapons used in deadly attacks.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit partially overturned an earlier ruling in San Diego by U.S. District Judge M. James Lorenz in a 2-1 decision.

“America would not exist without the heroism of the young men who fought and died in our revolutionary army,” the 55-page majority opinion began. “Today we reaffirm that our Constitution still protects the right that enables them to make sacrifices: the right of young people to keep and bear arms.”

The lawsuit, originally brought by youths, gun dealers and advocacy groups, actually challenges a different law that in 2018 banned 18- to 20-year-olds from buying any type of long gun — shotgun or rifle — unless They hold a valid hunting license or a sworn peace officer or military member.

Granville gun shop apparently respected the hunting license exception by selling AR-15-style rifles to a 19-year-old who was used in a synagogue attack days later — even though the purchase may not actually be legal , because the license is not yet in effect.

In response, the California legislature passed a new law a few months later, Senate Bill 61, which eliminated the hunting license exception for purchasing semi-automatic rifles for this age group. The only remaining exception is reserved for peace officers or military personnel.

Frame grabs from surveillance video show John Ernest entering a synagogue in Poway. The video was played during a preliminary hearing for Earnest, who admitted killing one person and wounding three.

(John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Plaintiffs amended their lawsuit to challenge hunting license requirements and the semi-automatic rifle ban. Lorenz declined to issue a preliminary injunction against either law in the 2020 order. Plaintiff appealed.

A three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit agreed on one thing: Requiring young people to have a valid hunting license to buy a long gun may be constitutional because it “would not impose a significant burden on the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms” “. The requirement also promotes public safety goals, as such licenses provide firearm safety training for young people, the ruling said.

But when it came to semi-automatic rifles, the judges were divided.

The 2019 law boiled down to a near-total ban, Judge Ryan Nelson, a Trump appointee, wrote in the majority ruling.

“It’s one thing to say that young people have to take courses and buy a hunting license before they can get certain firearms. But to say they have to become police officers or join the military? For most young people, this is no exception at all,” he wrote. . Additionally, the opinion notes in a footnote that many local law enforcement agencies do not accept applicants under the age of 21.

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The ruling examines the tradition of allowing young people to serve in the militia — a tradition deeply rooted in British law and custom and carried over to the United States during colonial times.

Most also found that if young people were barred from purchasing the most effective weapons, they would be at a significant disadvantage in protecting their homes for self-defense. Another law already bans people under the age of 21 from buying handguns – without exception – and the semi-automatic rifle ban will only add to that, placing a “severe” burden on their constitutional rights, the ruling country.

Another Trump nominee, Judge Kenneth Lee, wrote a separate concurring opinion that puts the semi-automatic rifle law in the broader political context.

“I fully agree with that opinion, but writing separately emphasizes how California’s legal position has no logical stopping point and will ultimately erode the fundamental rights enumerated in our Constitution,” Lee wrote. “Simply put, we cannot give up our constitutional rights, even if the goals behind the law are laudable.”

The only dissent was written by Judge Sidney Stein, a Clinton-appointed District Judge in New York who sits temporarily on the Ninth Circuit.

California’s goal of promoting public safety and reducing gun violence is an important and important one,” he wrote. “I disagree with the majority’s conclusion that the law is not a ‘reasonable fit’ for this purpose.”

The attorney general’s office, which defends the law, said Wednesday that it was reviewing the decision.

California will continue to take all necessary steps to prevent and reduce gun violence,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We remain committed to defending California’s common-sense gun laws that save lives and make our communities safer.”

The office could ask the case to be reconsidered by a larger full panel of the Ninth Circuit, as has happened in other recent Second Amendment cases that have sought to reshape California’s strict gun laws.

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs did not respond to requests for comment.

Last year, another law was passed to further address how the Poway synagogue shooter would be able to purchase a rifle with a hunting license, which was issued to him but would not take effect until a few months later, when the season officially began.

Beginning July 1, 2025, the California Department of Justice is required by law to verify the validity of hunting licenses for people under the age of 21 trying to buy long guns, as part of an already mandatory 10-day background check. It also requires gun sellers to visually verify and document the validity of hunting licenses.

About 12,000 18- to 20-year-olds bought annual hunting licenses in California last year, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

US News.

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