U.S. appeals court overturns California ban on semiautomatic rifle sales to those under 21

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FILE - In this March 15, 2020, file photo, people wait in line to enter a gun store in Culver City, Calif. California could expand its law requiring unique identifiers on every bullet casing to include weapons used by law enforcement, a move that proponents said is another attempt to help investigate shootings by police. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)
People wait to enter a gun store in Culver City in 2020. A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that California's ban on the sale of semiautomatic firearms to adults younger than 21 was unconstitutional. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that California's ban on the sale of semiautomatic rifles to adults younger than 21 was unconstitutional.

In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the 2nd Amendment "protects the right of young adults to keep and bear arms, which includes the right to purchase them."

The ruling reverses a lower court's decision not to issue an injunction to block a 2019 state law that banned the sale of semiautomatic centerfire rifles to young adults, which the appeals court called a "legal error."

"America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army," Judge Ryan D. Nelson, an appointee of President Trump, wrote for the appeals court. "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 was joined by Judge Kenneth K. Lee, another Trump appointee who issued his own concurring opinion. Judge Sidney H. Stein, an appointee of President Clinton, dissented.

The court let stand a separate state requirement that younger adults obtain hunting licenses before purchasing long guns. Federal law bars the sale of handguns to adults younger than 21 by federally licensed dealers but not by private parties.

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta's office said it was reviewing the court's decision.

"California will continue to take all necessary steps to prevent and reduce gun violence," Bonta's office said. "We remain committed to defending California’s commonsense gun laws, which save lives and make our communities safer."

Bonta's office could request the matter be reheard by the full appeals court.

The Firearms Policy Coalition, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the state law, claimed the decision as a victory.

"Today’s decision confirms that peaceable legal adults cannot be prohibited from acquiring firearms and exercising their rights enshrined in the Second Amendment," Adam Kraut, the group's vice president of programs, said in a statement. "We are pleased to see progress on this important legal front and optimistic that similar results will come from our many other challenges to age-based bans filed in courts across the United States."

The state law challenged by the coalition's lawsuit had prohibited adults ages 18 to 21 from purchasing semiautomatic centerfire rifles but provided for some exceptions — such as if they were members of law enforcement or the military. It also said young adults could be gifted such weapons by their parents.

In part based on those allowances, U.S. District Judge M. James Lorenz of San Diego had ruled the law was a valid public safety measure.

The 9th Circuit panel rejected that reasoning, finding instead that the law unfairly conditioned the rights of young adults on certain criteria, such as their employment by law enforcement, or on the actions of others, such as their parents.

It cited historical precedent of young people using firearms in the U.S. with few restrictions in the past — and particularly rifles, if not always handguns. And it found that banning younger adults from buying such rifles impinged on their right to self-defense, particularly given they are already prohibited from buying handguns by federal law.

The decision is the latest to throw into question modern gun control measures in California, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. Cases in recent years have challenged the state's ban on assault weapons, and its ban on high-capacity magazines.

Some gun control advocates have blamed the shift on Trump appointees taking seats in courts across the country and in California in recent years, a sentiment some shared Wednesday as well.

"Trump judges continue to shred the Constitution," state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) wrote on Twitter of the 9th Circuit decision. "The latest: 18 year olds have a 'constitutional right' to own mass killing machines."

Lawmakers enacted the ban on rifle sales to younger adults after several attacks by young people using rifles, including the shooting by a 19-year-old gunman that killed 17 people at a Parkland, Fla., high school in 2018 and another attack by a 19-year-old gunman that killed one and wounded others at a synagogue near San Diego in 2019.

State Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), who sponsored the ban legislation, said Wednesday that he was disappointed with the court's decision overturning it, but pleased the hunting license requirement for long guns was upheld.

"I remain committed to keeping deadly weapons out of the wrong hands," Portantino said. "Student safety on our campuses is something we should all rally behind, and sensible gun control is part of that solution."

Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor who teaches about gun regulations, said the court's ruling was consistent with the idea, common across much of U.S. law, that fundamental rights of adults in this country are generally conferred at 18, not 21.

"People in America generally have their rights starting at the age 18, their full panoply of rights," he said.

Volokh also said the court took a measured approach in its ruling in that it overturned the ban on sales of rifles to younger adults, which amounted to a "prohibition," while letting stand the more "modest regulation" of requiring they get hunting licenses for long guns.

Adam Winkler, another UCLA law professor who focuses on 2nd Amendment laws, said he viewed the court's ruling as "a harbinger of things to come" as federal courts take an increasingly broad view of the amendment.

"This ruling is just the first of many that will call into question many of the top agenda items of the newly reenergized gun safety movement," Winkler said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.