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Third Circuit Protects 2A Rights for 18-to-20-Year-Olds

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In layman’s terms: The Third Circuit Appeals Court told a lower court it was wrong to uphold a law that limited carry rights for adults aged 18-20.

Today, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recognized a simple bit of logic: 18-to-20-year-olds are legal adults who have full constitutional rights.

A three-judge panel, led by Judge Kent A. Jordan, reversed and remanded the lower Court’s ruling against plaintiffs who challenged a ban on the open carrying of weapons for 18-to-20-year-olds outside their homes during a state of emergency in the state of Pennsylvania. (Concealed carry is prohibited for adults under 21 years of age in the state, while open carry is permitted. The challenge arose because the law banning open carry during a state of emergency effectively banned all carry for those 18 to 20 years of age.) 

The case, Lara v. Evanchick, was brought by three plaintiffs who, at the time, were denied their constitutional rights because of their age under a Pennsylvania law. In 2020, they sued the Commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police. The District Court ruled against them, dismissing their case, and they then appealed. Oral arguments were made before the Appeals Court in June of 2023.

(Both the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) and the Firearms Policy Coalition, Inc. (FPC) supported the plaintiffs in this case.)

The Appeals Court properly applied the two-part Bruen test, with a presumption that if the plain text of the Second Amendment covers an individual’s conduct, then the Constitution protects that conduct. Following that, the court looked at the text, history and tradition of firearms regulations covering adults under the age of 21 and made some remarkably simple findings.

In the first two paragraphs of its majority opinion, the Court observed that there’s no precedent for infringing on constitutional rights of this age group:

The words “the people” in the Second Amendment presumptively encompass all adult Americans, including 18- to-20-year-olds, and we are aware of no founding-era law that supports disarming people in that age group. Accordingly, we will reverse and remand.

The burden of proof of historical laws that deny gun rights is always on the state. The court offered the following in this regard:

Our question is whether the Commissioner has borne his burden of proving that evidence of founding-era regulations supports Pennsylvania’s restriction on 18-to-20-year-olds’ Second Amendment rights, and the answer to that is no.

Later in the opinion, the Court importantly reemphasized this point.

…the Commissioner cannot point us to a single founding-era statute imposing restrictions on the freedom of 18-to-20-year-olds to carry guns.

Importantly the Court emphasized laws from the 1791 founding era to which Bruen gives greater deference as a starting point for historical analysis.

Accordingly, to maintain consistency in our interpretation of constitutional provisions, we hold that the Second Amendment should be understood according to its public meaning in 1791…. Bruen has already instructed that historical evidence from 1791 is relevant to understanding the scope of the Second Amendment as incorporated against the states.

Interestingly, Judge L. Felipe Restrepo wrote a dissenting opinion based upon the thesis that those under 21 were considered “infants” in the eyes of the law with few legal rights. He argued that, by extension, that they should not have Second Amendment rights:

The fact that this class of persons had no power to independently exercise almost any rights of speech, association, conscience, marriage, contract, suffrage, petition, or property, strongly suggests that they would not be understood as receiving constitutional protections as members of “the people” under the Second Amendment.

Judge Restrepo’s dissent fails the Bruen test because it does not provide evidence of such specific restrictions and only alludes to an inference. A good deal of discussion of militia service also surrounded the dissenting position.

The case still needs to be heard on the merits, as FPC pointed out in an X/Twitter statement:

Because the court reversed the decision for that reason, it did not make a determination on the merits of the case, which the trial court judge will have to do again.

We will continue to follow this story.

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