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Florida finds uncommon allies in gun law fight

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Groups seeking stricter gun-control laws frequently have clashed with Republican leaders in Florida, a testing ground for National Rifle Association-backed legislation.

But gun-control organizations, and 16 states, are joining forces with the “Gunshine State” to defend a Florida law that raised the minimum age from 18 to 21 to purchase rifles and other “long guns.”

The NRA challenged the constitutionality of the law, which was included in a sweeping school-safety measure passed by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Nikolas Cruz, who was 19 at the time of the massacre, last week pleaded guilty to murdering 17 students and staff members during a Valentine’s Day rampage at his former school.

The NRA’s lawsuit maintains that the age requirement violates young adults’ Second Amendment rights. In June, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker upheld the law, but the NRA in August asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Walker’s ruling.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the organization known as Brady, March for Our Lives Action Fund and other groups seeking stricter gun-control measures on Monday filed a friend-of-the-court brief backing the state in the appeal. The group Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund and 16 states also filed briefs supporting the law.

The brief filed by Giffords and other groups pointed to research that they said reflected the Republican-dominated Legislature’s “well-founded, data-driven, and effective solution to the grave problem of gun violence, and thus substantially relates to an important state objective.”

Research shows that “18-to-20-year-olds’ brains are still developing, that they are at higher risk of using firearms to commit crime and attempt suicide, and that they are disproportionately likely to be victims of firearm-related violence,” the organizations wrote in the 52-page brief.

“In light of this data, the Florida Legislature crafted a well-calibrated solution that easily passes constitutional muster,” the brief said.

Federal law has long barred sales of handguns to people under 21. But the Florida law went further by preventing the sale of rifles, shotguns and other long guns to people ages 18 to 20.

In the brief Monday, the groups backing the law cited research that said minors are “uniquely prone” to negative emotional states and are “more prone to act on aggressive negative emotions” when confronted by stressful situations.

“Because their brains are still developing, 18-to-20-year-olds are at a higher risk of violence when they have unfettered access to firearms,” the brief said.

The brief also identified several mass shootings throughout the country that were carried out by people younger than 21.

“In the 20 years following the Columbine High School massacre, there were 486 incidents involving firearms at schools, including 68 incidents of an active shooter on school property during the school day,” the groups wrote.

But in its appeal filed in August, the NRA argued that the Florida law is unconstitutional “because it is inconsistent with the text, history, and tradition of the Second Amendment.”

“The Second Amendment’s text guarantees young adults the right to keep and bear arms. The text contains no age restriction, even though the Founders used age restrictions elsewhere in the Constitution, such as imposing age thresholds on candidates for the House of Representatives,” the NRA’s lawyers wrote.

Key legal arguments in the case hinge on a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as District of Columbia v. Heller. While the ruling is broadly considered a major victory for gun-rights supporters, it also said certain “longstanding prohibitions” about guns do not violate the Second Amendment and established that the constitutional right to keep and bear arms is “not unlimited.”

The Heller case pointed to prohibitions on such things as felons and mentally ill people possessing guns. Walker concluded that restrictions on 18-to-20-year-old people buying guns were “analogous” to the restrictions cited in the Heller case.

In a brief filed last week, lawyers for Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen, the named defendant in the case, argued that other courts have held that age qualifications such as Florida’s are valid.

“Those courts have concluded that age restrictions like Florida’s have a longer historical pedigree than most of the presumptively lawful restrictions identified in Heller,” the state’s lawyers wrote in a 40-page brief. “Other historical sources, including courts and prominent scholars, support the understanding that age restrictions do not violate the Second Amendment.”

Florida’s lawyers also noted that at least 19 other states and the District of Columbia have enacted a minimum age requirement of 21 for sale or possession of certain categories of firearms.

In a friend of the court brief joined by 15 other states, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul argued that the states “have a substantial interest in the public health, safety, and welfare of their communities, which includes protecting their residents from the harmful effects of gun violence and promoting the safe use of firearms.”

States have “long exercised their governmental prerogative to implement measures” regulating the sale and use of, as well as access to, firearms for individuals under the age of 21, Raoul, a Democrat, wrote in the brief.

Numerous factors — including population density, variations in youth concentrations in the population, poverty levels, unemployment, educational and recreational opportunities — “produce disparities” in the numbers and types of gun-related murders and other crimes, the Illinois attorney general argued.

“Given these unique conditions and needs, the states must be able to implement varied measures” to address gun violence and protect citizens, the states’ brief said.

While the Florida law prevents people ages 18 to 20 from buying guns, it allows them to receive firearms, for example, as gifts from relatives. NRA attorneys argued in the August brief that the law violates constitutional equal-protection rights.

“The Legislature discriminates between young adults privileged enough to be gifted or loaned a firearm from those not so privileged,” the brief said. “The former are somehow fit for firearm ownership while the latter are not.”

Dara Kam - News Service of Florida