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Fourth Circuit vacates order striking down age limit for handguns

While not mandatory, the decision to vacate prior rulings in mooted cases is the Richmond-based appeals court’s customary practice.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Just two months after the Fourth Circuit found a federal law limiting handgun sales to purchasers 21 and over is unconstitutional, the same court on Wednesday vacated that decision because the plaintiff in the case turned 21.

“A divided panel of this court found those laws violated the text, structure, history, and tradition of the Second Amendment,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Julius Richardson, who also wrote the opinion in July overturning the federal age limit.  

“After the opinion issued, but before the mandate, [Natalia] Marshall turned 21,” he added. “And that made her claims moot.”

Richardson, a Donald Trump appointee, said the procedural move is common practice for the court when such mootness occurs. He noted several attempts by Elliot Harding, the Charlottesville-based attorney who argued on behalf of Marshall, to try to keep the case alive, but the court ultimately vacated both the panel ruling and the district court opinion in the case.

But Harding said those efforts, including interventions by gun retailers seeking to sell handguns to those under 21, were still working through the legal process, including forthcoming appeals, with the hopes of still overturning the law.

"Regardless of how these immediate issues may be resolved, these laws will continue to be challenged one way or another until liberty is ultimately restored," Harding said in an emailed statement.  

Meanwhile, a pair of Democratic attorneys general, Mark Herring of Virginia and Brian Frosh of Maryland, both celebrated the decision. They filed briefs earlier this month asking the en banc Fourth Circuit to vacate the panel's July opinion.

“Handguns are too often the weapon of choice for dangerous individuals who may want to harm themselves, an intimate partner, or even commit a crime,” Herring said in a statement Wednesday. “With this decision, this constitutional, longstanding gun safety law that has kept Virginians and our communities safe for decades will remain on the books.” 

The dispute started when Marshall, 18 at the time, wanted to buy a handgun to protect herself from her abusive ex-boyfriend and to defend her rural home. 

She challenged the law after a firearms dealer refused to sell her a gun because of her age. 

"Congress may not restrict the rights of an entire group of law-abiding adults because a minuscule portion of that group commits a disproportionate amount of gun violence," Richardson wrote in his July opinion, arguing Congress had used bad data when crafting the age limit. 

But U.S. Circuit Judge James Wynn Jr., a Barack Obama appointee, dissented with his colleagues at the time and instead suggested limits on the Second Amendment were needed "not because it is uniquely oppressed or imperiled, but rather because it is singularly capable of causing harm."

“To be sure, the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms is an exceptional right, just not in the way the majority imagines,” he wrote. 

Those old differences remained Wednesday.

While Richardson admitted the case was now moot because Marshall turned 21 before the appeal was closed, he still suggested "the exchange of ideas between the panel and dissent will remain available as a persuasive source" when a new challenge to the age limit is heard.

But in a separate opinion concurring with the judgment, Wynn compared the value of vacated opinions to that of an editorial written in a local newspaper.

"Readers may themselves be persuaded one way or the other by our exchanges, but these vacated opinions have no persuasive value whatsoever as to how this court would decide this issue," he wrote.

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