Law & Courts

Florida Law Requiring Gun Buyers to Be 21 Is Upheld

Post-Parkland Age Restrictions on Gun Sales Upheld by Federal Court
By Mark Walsh — March 10, 2023 4 min read
Audriana Lima, 14, a current freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, visits a display of portraits of the 17 students and staff who were killed in a school shooting five years earlier, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at Pine Trails Park in Parkland, Fla. Family members, neighbors, and well-wishers turned out to multiple events Tuesday to honor the lives of those killed on Valentine's Day 2018.
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A federal appeals court has upheld a Florida law passed following the mass school shooting in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that raised the minimum age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21.

“Tragically, under-21-year-old gunmen continue to intentionally target others—now, with disturbing regularity, in schools,” Judge Robin S. Rosenbaum wrote on March 9 for a mostly unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta. “So along with math, English, and science, schoolchildren must become proficient in running, hiding, and fighting armed gunmen in schools. Their lives depend upon it.”

Rosenbaum said Florida’s legislative response to the mass shooting carried out by a 19-year-old former student at the high school in Parkland, Fla., which killed 17 students and staff members and injured 17 others, was “restrained” and “consistent with our nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

The law was challenged by the National Rifle Association and one individual plaintiff. The NRA had unsuccessfully lobbied to defeat the bipartisan measure, which was signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, and also includes a three-day waiting period for most long gun purchases and establishes a “red flag” provision allowing authorities to confiscate guns from people deemed to be a public threat.

Only the provision barring gun purchases by 18- to 20-year-olds was at issue in National Rifle Association v. Commissioner, Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

So along with math, English, and science, schoolchildren must become proficient in running, hiding, and fighting armed gunmen in schools. Their lives depend upon it.

In court papers, the NRA argued that the purchase restriction infringes the Second Amendment rights of “law-abiding, responsible young adults” and was a “blunt instrument unlikely to achieve its purpose.”

The group also pointed to language by a federal district judge who upheld the law but said it “will have little impact on many, if not most, 18-to-20-year-old Floridians.”

“In short, then, it is not clear how much the act does to prevent tragedies like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” the district judge had said.

Appeals court analyzes Florida law under major Second Amendment decision by the U.S. Supreme Court

The 11th Circuit panel analyzed the Florida provision under the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Second Amendment decision from last year in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, a case that was watched in education circles for what it might portend for gun regulations around schools.

In that decision, the court held that the Second Amendment encompasses a right to carry a handgun outside the home for self-defense, and it struck down a New York state law that required an individual to have “proper cause” and a “special need” to be issued a concealed-carry license.

Significantly for other gun regulations, the high court said a state must show that any limit on an individual’s conduct under the Second Amendment is consistent with the nation’s history of firearm regulation.

Rosenbaum, in the 11th Circuit opinion, said Florida’s law was consistent with the nation’s relevant historical tradition of firearm regulation at the time of Reconstruction—the period right after the Civil War and the end of slavery —when the adoption of the 14th Amendment applied the Second Amendment (and other amendments in the Bill of Rights) to the states.

“During the Reconstruction Era … many states responded to gun violence by 18-to-20-year-olds by prohibiting that age group from even possessing deadly weapons like pistols,” he said.

The court rejected the NRA’s arguments that a federal law from the time of the nation’s founding that required 18- to 20-year-olds to muster for the militia supported an unimpeded ability of people in that age group to purchase firearms.

“Even if federal law obliged 18- to-20-year-olds to muster for the militia, laws banning that same group from buying firearms do not infringe on the right to keep and bear arms,” the court said.

Janet Carter, the senior director of issues and appeals for Everytown Law, the legal affiliate of Everytown for Gun Safety, said the decision was a “gratifying” win for gun control advocates.

“This decision will save lives,” said Carter, whose group in part grew out of the 2012 mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn, and filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Florida law. “Both historically and today the decision upholds a legislative recognition that guns in the hands of the 18- to 20-year-old age group represent risks. A law that imposes restrictions like Florida’s does is going to address those risks and save lives.”

Brynn Jones, a legal associate at March for Our Lives, the advocacy group born out of the Parkland shooting, said in a statement to Education Week that the Florida law “helps fulfill the promise of ‘never again’ for preventing gun violence, and this decision ultimately validates our constitutional right to not be shot.”

The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Florida legislature is considering a bill that would restore 18 as the age for purchasing firearms.

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