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Texas can’t bar adults under 21 from carrying handguns, federal judge rules

Shannon Watts, founder Moms Demand Action, called the judge's decision “another example of a radical court operating wildly out of step with the American people and the Constitution.” (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP)

A federal judge in Texas on Thursday struck down a state law barring adults under 21 from carrying handguns, ruling that the age limit violated the Second Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Mark T. Pittman said the Constitution didn’t put an age restriction on the right to bear arms, meaning adults 18 to 20 shouldn’t be prevented from carrying handguns outside the home.

The 23-page opinion leaned heavily on originalism, the conservative legal theory that judges should interpret the Constitution based on the way it was understood when it was written.

“The issue is whether prohibiting law-abiding 18-to-20-year-olds from carrying a handgun in public for self-defense is consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,” Pittman wrote. “Based on the Second Amendment’s text, as informed by Founding-Era history and tradition, the Court concludes that the Second Amendment protects against this prohibition.”

The decision won’t take effect immediately. The judge, an appointee of former president Donald Trump, issued a 30-day stay pending appeal, saying there’s a possibility that a higher court would rule differently.

But if the ruling stands, it would further loosen firearm restrictions in Texas, where lawmakers have expanded gun access in recent years, even as the state has grappled with a spate of deadly mass shootings. It would also mark a setback for gun-reform advocates, who have renewed calls for firearm restrictions in the wake of the massacre in Uvalde, Tex., where a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in May.

Shannon Watts, founder of the gun control group Moms Demand Action, called the decision “another example of a radical court operating wildly out of step with the American people and the Constitution.”

"After hearing Uvalde survivors demanding common-sense gun safety measures — including raising the age to buy an assault weapon — a Trump-appointed judge in Texas just issued a dangerous ruling that would allow teenagers to carry handguns in public,” she said in an emailed statement.

The decision came in a lawsuit filed by the Firearm Policy Coalition, a gun-rights group, and two under-21 plaintiffs who said Texas unconstitutionally prevented them from carrying handguns in public for self-defense.

State law generally bars 18- to 20-year-olds from carrying those weapons outside the home, with narrow exceptions for military personnel, veterans and people under protective orders.

The plaintiffs argued that the law ran afoul of Supreme Court decisions protecting Second Amendment rights. They acknowledged that their challenge would clash with a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upholding a ban on adults 18 to 20 obtaining concealed carry permits, but they said they believed that case was “wrongly decided.”

The Firearms Policy Coalition cheered the ruling from Pittman.

“This decision is a significant victory for the rights of young adults in Texas and demonstrates for the rest of the nation that similar bans cannot withstand constitutional challenges grounded in history,” Cody J. Wisniewski, a senior attorney with the group, said in a statement.

He said the state had failed to point to a “Founding Era” law supporting the restriction on 18- to 20-year-olds. “Not only did no such law exist, but those individuals are an important reason why we have a Bill of Rights in the first place,” Wisniewski said.

The lawsuit named as defendants Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, and several county officials tasked with enforcing the handgun ban. In court papers, the state contended that the 5th Circuit’s decision should prevent their suit from moving forward. Public safety officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday morning.

Texas has experienced several high-profile mass shootings in the past half-decade, including massacres in Sutherland Springs, El Paso, Uvalde and other communities that have left dozens of people dead. Despite public pressure to curb gun violence and rein in firearms, lawmakers have steadily weakened gun controls in the state. Last summer, a few months before the lawsuit by the Firearms Policy Coalition was filed, the legislature passed a law permitting residents to carry handguns without a license or training.

Guns in America

Mass shootings: There have been more than 600 mass shootings across the nation in 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as any event in which four or more people, not including the shooter, are injured or killed, and includes many incidents with no fatalities. Such events have been on the rise in recent years, and a disproportionate number of shooters in the U.S. are young men.

Visualizing gun violence: These charts help show the the extent to which gun violence impacts people across the country.

Gun laws: Until the bipartisan Safer Communities Act in June, congressional efforts to significantly change gun policies had largely failed for at least a decade. The effectiveness of gun control laws is often debated politically — here’s what research shows.

Trying to stay safe: What should you do in the still-unlikely event you find yourself someplace where an armed person has opened fire? Experts say people should plan their escape route, move away from gunfire and find a way to regain a sense of control.

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