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Court dissolves gun rights ruling on sales to people under 21

Firearms displayed at a gun buyback event in New York in May. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

A federal appeals court on Wednesday vacated a gun rights ruling from July finding unconstitutional laws that prevent young adults under age 21 from buying handguns.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit dissolved its ruling because the Virginia woman who initially brought the lawsuit turned 21 before the decision became official.

“Despite efforts to add parties and reframe her claimed injuries, it is too late to revive this case. So it must be dismissed as moot,” wrote Judge Julius N. Richardson, author of the court’s initial opinion.

Read the ruling: Court dissolves gun rights ruling on age requirement for buying handguns

The challenge to the age restrictions was brought by prospective handgun buyer Natalia Marshall, who was unable to purchase a handgun from a federally licensed firearms dealer in Virginia because of her age. Once Marshall turned 21, she was no longer prohibited from buying a handgun, and there was no longer a legal controversy, the court said.

Marshall’s attorney had tried to add a new, younger plaintiff to the appeal — two days after Marshall turned 21, according to the court. By then, the court said, the case was moot.

Elliott Harding, who represents Marshall, said Wednesday that he is not giving up.

“One way or another, these laws are going to continue to be challenged,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the Government will evade the repercussions of the court’s thorough ruling simply because the nature of the laws at issue allow them to escape final review through our lengthy litigation process.”

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In its 2-to-1 decision in July, the court found the minimum age requirement for purchases from federally licensed gun dealers restricts the rights of law-abiding citizens.

The majority also expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of age restrictions that they said incentivize young adults to obtain guns from unlicensed dealers and without background checks.

“We refuse to relegate either the Second Amendment or 18-to-20-year-olds to a second-class status,” Richardson wrote.

In dissent, Judge James A. Wynn Jr. said courts should defer to lawmakers, who imposed the age restrictions more than 50 years ago because of concerns about public safety.

The Justice Department had asked the full court to reconsider the decision and said the panel got it wrong.

The Biden administration pointed to a historical tradition of age-based limits on purchasing firearms and said that past practice “in no way suggests a recognition of an unfettered right of minors to purchase their own firearms for personal self-defense.”

The court’s decision, the department said, “if left uncorrected, risks seriously hamstringing Congress’s efforts to legislate in the interest of public safety.”