September 27, 2021
By Mark Chesnut
Back in mid-July when a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that 18- to 20-year-olds have the same right to purchase a handgun from a licensed dealer as older Americans do, pro-gun advocates cheered the decision.
Now, however, the court has thrown out that decision. And the reason—incredibly—is because the two plaintiffs in the case have now reached the age of 21 and are legally able to purchase handguns.
The case—Hirschfeld v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives—revolved around Natalia Marshall, an 18-year-old Virginia woman who had found out just how dangerous her ex-boyfriend was. She had filed for and got a restraining order against him, but he had a history of not paying attention to government paperwork. In fact, he had recently been released from custody on bond but had never shown up in court to face charges of illegal possession of a firearm and substance abuse.
In desperation, Marshall headed to a local gun shop to try to even the odds against her proven dangerous ex. To her dismay, they wouldn’t sell her a handgun to protect herself because of a federal law that states you must be 21 years of age to purchase one from a firearms dealer.
The other plaintiff was Tanner Hirschfeld, who is also from Virginia and who turned 21 shortly before the earlier ruling.
The 2-1 ruling in July was actually very cut and dried. In the majority opinion, Judge Julius Richardson wrote some strong words about constitutional rights and who is free to practice them.
“We hold that the challenged federal laws and regulations are unconstitutional under the Second Amendment,” Judge Richardson wrote at the time. “Despite the weighty interest in reducing crime and violence, we refuse to relegate either the Second Amendment or 18- to 20-year-olds to a second-class status.”
According to Judge Richardson, the important question was when Americans can legally begin enjoying the rights protected by the constitution.
“When do constitutional rights vest?” Richardson wrote. “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.”
Last week’s decision to throw out the case was based on Marshall turning 21 on July 25, which was before the court issued a mandate in the case.
Judge James Wynn, who wrote a distinctly anti-gun dissent following the original decision, stated that vacated ruling now has “no legal value” and its persuasive value “can be no more than the value of newspaper editorials.” At the time of the decision, he had written: “No, the Second Amendment is exceptional not because it is uniquely oppressed or imperiled, but rather because it is singularly capable of causing harm. The majority’s decision to grant the gun lobby a victory in a fight it lost on Capitol Hill more than 50 years ago is not compelled by law.”
As for the plaintiffs, in a letter obtained by Reuters, their attorney, Elliott Harding, said they were disappointed that the system continues to deny their equal access to fundamental liberties simply because of their youth and because the litigation took too long.
Freelance writer and editor Mark Chesnut is the owner/editorial director at Red Setter Communications LLC. An avid hunter, shooter and political observer, he has been covering Second Amendment issues and politics on a near-daily basis for more than 20 years.