National Rifle Association Lawsuit Challenging Florida's Age Restrictions for Gun Purchases Back On

Florida Lawsuit
Federal law requires handgun transactions occurring through licensed dealers to involve only purchasers who are at least 21. Scott Olson/Getty

A federal judge on Wednesday allowed the National Rifle Association (NRA) to proceed with a lawsuit challenging Florida's new minimum-age gun purchase rules after the organization abandoned its attempt to include anonymous plaintiffs.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker put the case on hold last year until an appellate court was set to weigh in about the propriety of using anonymous plaintiffs. In mid-November, the NRA signaled a desire to pursue a more expedient avenue, asking the court of appeals to toss the group's objection while it filed a new complaint with a named plaintiff.

The NRA is now representing Radford Fant, an adult resident of Duval County who is unable to purchase a firearm due to legislation enacted after the Parkland massacre prohibiting gun sales for purchasers under 21.

Federal law requires handgun transactions occurring through licensed dealers to involve only purchasers who are at least 21; for long guns such as rifles, the minimum age is 18. Through private sales, the federal handgun minimum is lowered to 18, and there is no minimum age for long guns.

States can enact their own minimum requirements as long as they exceed the federal standards. In March 2018, the month following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida raised the age to purchase any firearm—handgun or long gun—to 21. This minimum applies not just to licensed dealers but to private sellers as well.

The NRA is arguing that Florida's new law impedes Fant's right to lawfully purchase a firearm for self-defense as secured by the Second Amendment, which "guarantee[s] the individual right to possess and carry" firearms, the Supreme Court found in its 2008 Heller decision.

The lawsuit also claims that by selectively disfavoring a class of adults 18 to 21 years of age, Florida is violating the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection clause.

Although there has been no definitive ruling on the precise type of ban Florida has enacted, appellate courts have previously upheld age-related restrictions for firearms purchases. In a 2012 lawsuit filed by the NRA, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the federal minimum for handgun purchases through licensed dealers was consistent with the Second Amendment.

A subsequent ruling from the same court applied precedent to find that a Texas law limiting public-carry of handguns for adults under 21 "likely" escapes "the Second Amendment's protection."

However, a Congressional Research Service report from 2018 observed that these pro-restriction rulings have used a standard more lenient than one courts could apply, and they involved laws more narrow than the all-out ban on purchases Florida has imposed.

Whether the Florida law will pass muster with a trial court has little bearing on how an appeals court, or the Supreme Court, might eventually rule. In the wake of the landmark Heller decision there has been little guidance from the high court about how specific avenues of gun control would fare under a revitalized Second Amendment.

The NRA lawsuit may have to face protracted litigation as lower courts have generally looked favorably upon modest gun restrictions. Although, a Supreme Court sympathetic to gun ownership could upend the current trend and redefine Heller in a much more stringent way than gun-control supporters had hoped for when the decision was handed down.

A trial in the case has been tentatively set for October 2020.