A federal appeals court panel has given a thumbs-up to licensed handgun sales for a cohort of individuals, aged 18 to 20, who are vastly more likely to use them to commit murder than older adults. In doing so, it shrugged off public safety concerns and brushed aside the legislative prerogatives of Congress, which mandated a legal age of 21 to purchase handguns from licensed dealers more than a half-century ago.

That act of judicial arrogance, if affirmed on appeal, would likely accelerate the current spike in homicides, many of them committed with handguns by individuals under the age of 21. And it comes as Americans are embarked on a record-setting gun-buying spree, which began during the pandemic and shows no sign of waning.

The split decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit also ignored the Supreme Court’s own decision in the landmark Heller case, from 2008. While the court overturned the District of Columbia’s restrictions on handguns in private homes, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, stressed that laws limiting firearms possession, for example by people deemed dangerous or “in sensitive places such as schools,” are legitimate for public safety.

That distinction was lost in the 4th Circuit’s 2-to-1 ruling, which declared, “We refuse to relegate either the Second Amendment or 18-to-20-year-olds to second-class status.”

Of course, most states forbid individuals under the age of 21 from purchasing alcohol, and many ban them from buying tobacco, without grandiose huffing and puffing about relegating young adults to “second-class status.” Those laws stand, with little controversy, because they protect the public from known risks.

As for the Second Amendment, the dissenting judge, James A. Wynn Jr., had it right in writing that in a country where gun owners “may conceal their weapons, carry them openly, or ‘stand their ground,’ and where civilian gun ownership rates are second to none, the majority’s second-class status concern is simply surreal.”

Equally surreal is the court’s rationale that the ban is unconstitutional because teenagers were often required to serve in militias, and bring their own guns, at the time the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791. That’s a tortured standard of relevance given that armed militias, except those organized by states under their own authority, are no longer invested with law-enforcement or security powers like those the Founding Fathers had in mind — or even, in many states, legal.

What’s more germane is that arrest rates for violent crimes tend to peak around age 18, and, in 2016, nearly half of all gun murders were committed by perpetrators in their teens and early 20s — even though that group represented less than 18 percent of the U.S. population.

That correlation between violent crime and the youngest adults impelled Congress, in 1968, to ban the sale of handguns by licensed dealers to individuals under 21. It’s true that teenagers can and do obtain weapons with relative ease by other means; it’s also folly to open a door to further facilitate their legal purchase. Here’s hoping that the full 4th Circuit, to which the panel’s decision is likely to be appealed, will reverse a senseless ruling.

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