(CN) - The federal government can prohibit federally licensed dealers from selling handguns to people under the age of 21, the 5th Circuit ruled.
"The present ban is consistent with a longstanding tradition of targeting select groups' ability to access and to use arms for the sake of public safety," Judge Edward Prado wrote for a three-judge panel.
In a 2010 federal complaint, the National Rifle Association and three young adults affected by the law had sued the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They claimed that the law violates the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment and the Second Amendment right to buy guns.
U.S. District Judge Sam Cummings in Lubbock had granted summary judgment for the government in January and rejected the NRA's constitutional claims.
In affirming that ruling Thursday, the New Orleans-based federal appeals court relied on the U.S. Supreme Court's 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller.
"The precise question before the court in Heller was whether Washington, D.C. statutes banning the possession of usable handguns in the home - in addition to requiring residents to keep their firearms either disassembled or trigger locked - violated the Second Amendment," Prado explained. "The court invalidated the laws because they violated the central right that the Second Amendment was intended to protect - that is, the 'right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.'"
In Heller, however, the Supreme Court explicitly stated that the "right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited."
Prado noted: "Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."
Though the NRA wanted the panel to consider the ban with strict scrutiny, the judges selected a lesser, "properly tuned" level of scrutiny that is proportionate to the severity of the burden the law imposes on the Second Amendment right.
"We have demonstrated that this federal scheme is not a salient outlier in the historical landscape of gun control," the 41-page opinion states. "And unlike the D.C. ban in Heller, this ban does not disarm an entire community, but instead prohibits commercial handgun sales to 18-to-20-year-olds - a discrete category. The narrow ambit of the ban's target militates against strict scrutiny."
In applying intermediate scrutiny, the panel concluded the ban is constitutional and that it serves an important government interest.
Studies conducted by Congress for the Federal Firearms Act of 1968 showed a causal relationship between the easy availability of firearms to those under 21 and the rise in crime, according to the ruling.
Congress had also repeatedly demonstrated concern for handguns being sold to individuals younger than 21.
Sheldon Cohen, a law enforcement official, had testified before a congressional subcommittee in 1968 that "the greatest growth of crime today is in the area of young people, juveniles, and young adults. The easy availability of weapons makes their tendency toward wild, and sometimes irrational behavior that much more violent, that much more deadly."
The court concluded that age-based classifications are not the same as race- or gender-based classifications that require a "tighter fit between the discriminatory means and the legitimate ends they serve."
Federal law can discriminate on age classification if it is rationally related to a legitimate state interest, the court found.
For the same reasons the challenged laws are "reasonably adapted to an important state interest" in the court's analysis of the Second Amendment issues, they are also rationally related to a legitimate state interest, the decision states.
"Appellants have failed to show that Congress irrationally imposed age qualifications on commercial arms sales," Prado concluded.
Thursday's ruling made the 5th Circuit the first of its kind to consider the constitutionality of a federal law in light of Heller. The D.C. Circuit and the 7th Circuit have applied Heller to determine the constitutionality of city gun laws.
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