U.S. Supreme Court decision could affect Florida gun age case

Gun Rights
Die-in against gun violence, Tampa. By Seán Kinane / WMNF News (12 June 2018).

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A U.S. Supreme Court decision Friday upholding a ban on gun possession by people under domestic violence restraining orders will refuel a legal battle about a Florida law that prevents people under the age of 21 from buying rifles and shotguns.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year put on hold a National Rifle Association challenge to the Florida law, which passed after the 2018 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The Atlanta-based appeals court directed attorneys for the state and the NRA to delay filing briefs until after the Supreme Court issued a decision in the domestic violence-related case.

Friday’s 8-1 decision, in a Texas case known as United States v. Rahimi, was a victory for the federal government and gun-control supporters. Now, both sides in the Florida lawsuit likely will argue how — or if — the Rahimi decision should apply to the dispute about whether the age restriction violates the Second Amendment.

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The NRA on Friday quickly described the Supreme Court decision as narrow. Randy Kozuch, executive director of the NRA-Institute for Legislative Action, posted a statement on X that said the decision is not an endorsement of “unconstitutional laws that the NRA is challenging across the country that burden the right of peaceable Americans to keep and bear arms. This decision holds only that an individual who poses a clear threat of violence may be temporarily disarmed after a judicial finding of dangerousness.”

While the details are different, the Florida and Texas cases have shared key questions about how to carry out a 2022 Supreme Court opinion in a case known as New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. That opinion said gun laws must be “consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

The NRA argues, in part, that preventing people under 21 from buying rifles and other long guns clashes with historical tradition — an argument that Florida disputes.

In the case decided Friday, Zackey Rahimi challenged a 1994 federal law that prevented gun possession by people under domestic violence restraining orders. Pointing to the Bruen opinion, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the law was unconstitutional.

But in its decision Friday, the Supreme Court said that when a “restraining order contains a finding that an individual poses a credible threat to the physical safety of an intimate partner, that individual may — consistent with the Second Amendment — be banned from possessing firearms while the order is in effect.”

“Since the founding, our nation’s firearm laws have included provisions preventing individuals who threaten physical harm to others from misusing firearms,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s main opinion.

Roberts also wrote that some courts have “misunderstood the methodology of our recent Second Amendment cases” and how regulations should be viewed historically. He wrote that the “Second Amendment permits more than just those regulations identical to ones that could be found in 1791. Holding otherwise would be as mistaken as applying the protections of the right only to muskets and sabers.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson pointed to confusion in lower courts about how to interpret the Bruen opinion.

“The message that lower courts are sending now in Second Amendment cases could not be clearer,” Jackson, a critic of the Bruen decision, wrote. “They say there is little method to Bruen’s madness. It isn’t just that Bruen’s history-and-tradition test is burdensome (though that is no small thing to courts with heavier caseloads and fewer resources than we have). The more worrisome concern is that lower courts appear to be diverging in both approach and outcome as they struggle to conduct the inquiry Bruen requires of them.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett also wrote concurring opinions, while Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter.

“The (Supreme) Court and government do not point to a single historical law revoking a citizen’s Second Amendment right based on possible interpersonal violence,” Thomas wrote. “The government has not borne its burden to prove that (the domestic-violence restraining order law) is consistent with the Second Amendment’s text and historical understanding.”

Florida lawmakers and then-Gov. Rick Scott rushed in 2018 to approve the ban on sales of rifles and other long guns to people under age 21 after Nikolas Cruz used a semiautomatic rifle to kill 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Federal law already prevented people under 21 from buying handguns.

After Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker rejected a challenge to the law, the NRA took the case to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, though it has not received as much attention as the challenge to the age restriction, another Florida gun-related case also could be affected by the Supreme Court decision. That case involves a challenge to a federal prohibition on medical marijuana patients buying and possessing guns.

Then-Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and other plaintiffs filed the case and appealed after U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor ruled against them. The 11th Circuit said in February it was holding the case “in abeyance” pending the Supreme Court decision in the Texas case.

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