A federal judge in Tacoma heard arguments Tuesday about a provision in state law that bars young adults age 18 to 20 from purchasing semi-automatic rifles, even though they are still allowed to possess the weapons for self-defense in their homes or places of business and for hunting, target shooting and other lawful purposes.
U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton, who heard competing motions for summary judgment, said he expects to issue a ruling on or before Aug. 31. But he told attorneys at the outset of the hourlong hearing that the age restriction does not impact “a core function of the Second Amendment,” and noted 18- to 20-year-olds can still purchase other firearms, such as shotguns or bolt-action rifles.
“Mr. Ard, you’re going to have a very stiff headwind in your argument,” the judge told Bainbridge Island attorney Joel Ard, one of the attorneys representing the case’s plaintiffs, which include gun sellers and young people seeking to buy semi-automatic rifles.
Leighton, who conducted the hearing telephonically, said he had been enlightened by materials submitted by both sides.
“I don’t share the hyperbole about the evil of guns or the sanctity of the right to self-defense,” he said. “This is just a plain vanilla analysis of the law as I see it.”
In November 2018, 59% of Washington voters approved Initiative 1639, a gun-violence prevention and public-safety measure meant to align gun laws for semi-automatic rifles with federal laws governing pistols, which cannot be legally sold to anyone under age 21. The initiative also barred in-person sales of semi-automatic rifles to residents of other states.
The initiative campaign began after a 19-year-old armed with an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle killed 17 people and injured 17 others at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. But court records filed in the case also reference two local mass shootings: In July 2016, a 19-year-old man armed with a semi-automatic rifle killed three teens at a Mukilteo house party and that September, a 20-year-old man, also armed with a rifle, killed five people at the Cascade Mall in Burlington, Skagit County.
I-1639 survived two court challenges before it was voted on: A Thurston County Superior Court judge blocked the initiative after the legality of the campaign’s signature-gathering petitions was challenged, but the state Supreme Court ruled in August 2018 that the measure would appear on the ballot.
The new gun laws, which also require enhanced background checks for buyers of semi-automatic assault rifles, went into effect last year. They’re the same background checks required for handgun buyers.
The federal lawsuit filed in February 2019 is challenging the age restriction on behalf of four young men who were barred from buying semi-automatic rifles, though two of them have since turned 21 and a third will turn 21 in October, Leighton heard Tuesday. Two gun dealers, one in Vancouver and the other in Spokane, are also plaintiffs in the case, along with the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation and the National Rifle Association.
Named as defendants in the case are Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl and Teresa Berntsen, the director of the state Department of Licensing. According to court documents, the three public officials can revoke the plaintiff gun dealers’ federal firearms licenses if the dealers were to sell semi-automatic assault rifles to out-of-state residents.
The plaintiffs say the age restriction is unconstitutional and that the restriction against selling semi-automatic rifles to out-of-state residents violates federal prohibitions that say state laws can’t discriminate against interstate or international commerce.
Ard argued Tuesday that the wording in the law on semi-automatic rifles bars the “purchase” by out-of-state residents, while the law on handguns says a Washington gun seller cannot “deliver” a handgun to an out-of-state resident.
Typically, an out-of-state resident can buy a handgun from a licensed gun dealer in Washington, who then transfers the firearm to a licensed gun dealer in the buyer’s home state; that dealer is then responsible for requesting a background check in line with that state’s laws.
“The preexisting law has a ban on delivery; this one has a ban on purchase,” Ard said. “I guess they meant delivery but that’s not the word in the statute.”
Assistant Attorney General Zach Pekelis Jones, arguing for the defendants, said the restriction barring in-person sales of semi-automatic rifles to nonresidents is authorized by the Federal Gun Control Act. Congress, he said, wanted states to be able to decide whether to allow the sale of shotguns and rifles to out-of-state residents.
Jones also said dealer-to-dealer transfers are not affected.
As to the age restriction, Leighton told the parties that during his 18 years on the bench, he’s read numerous mitigation packages arguing that executive functions of the brain are not fully developed until around age 26.
There are age restrictions on purchasing tobacco, marijuana and alcohol and on voting and they are matters “subject to the reasonable decisions of the citizens of Washington. They rule the day,” the judge said.
Leighton told the attorneys he grew up in a rural community where he learned to shoot at age 6 and remembers students taking guns to school.
As a judge, “I’ve heard how these young people are impacted in their executive function. It’s akin to mental illness in their development,” Leighton said. Compared to the time and place where he grew up, “this is a different world in the urban Western District of Washington.”
In arguing the age restriction violates the Second and Fourteenth Amendments, Ard said, “No other enumerated right has been withdrawn from adult citizens.”
Leighton countered: “They’re not adults.”
Ard replied that for the purposes of the Second Amendment, 18- to 20-year-olds have historically been treated as adults. He suggested young adults barred from buying semi-automatic rifles could obtain them from older family members and avoid the enhanced background check.
Jones called Ard’s argument that the age provision would send 18- to 20-year-olds into the black market “an entirely hypothetical problem.” He said until the early 1970s, the age of majority was 21 and by the early 20th century, more than half of states in the country had laws restricting people under age 21 from possessing firearms.
Additionally, Jones said the defendants have compiled “comprehensive evidence” that has gone unrebutted that show young adults 18- to 20-years-old have a greater propensity for impulsivity and risk-taking and disproportionately commit violent crimes.
“It’s not a severe burden. Any 18-year-old who wants to buy a semi-automatic rifle only has to wait three years,” Jones said, adding young adults have adequate options to exercise their right to self-defense.
In an emailed statement, Renée Hopkins, CEO of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, said Tuesday’s hearing made clear that “the commonsense safeguards” in I-1639 should be upheld.
“The gun lobby lost in the court of public opinion two years ago and this lawsuit is a last-ditch effort to stop these lifesaving measures,” Hopkins wrote. “We are cautiously optimistic that Initiative 1639 will withstand this lawsuit as it has withstood the gun lobby’s previous challenges.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the state Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of I-1639 in its August 2018 ruling. The high court instead reversed a lower court’s ruling and ruled the initiative would appear on the ballot. The story also incorrectly referenced the Federal Firearms Act instead of the Federal Gun Control Act.