Stores increasing age requirement to buy guns raises legal questions
The last year saw a major surge in attempts to raise the minimum age for gun purchases, raising legal questions that have yet to be firmly answered.
The push for a higher age intensified after the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which spurred states and some companies — including Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart — to impose a 21-year-old minimum age to purchase firearms.
Gun-rights advocates say the age of adulthood is 18 and, given the Second Amendment’s guarantee of a right to bear arms, any attempt to limit young adults amounts to illegal discrimination.
Tristin Fulton, 18, of Michigan, put that to the test, suing Dick’s in March after the store would not allow him to buy a shotgun.
That case recently was “resolved,” according to James Makowski, an attorney for Mr. Fulton.
Mr. Makowski declined to go into detail about the case itself, but said age is a protected class under Michigan’s anti-discrimination laws.
“A public accommodation, such as a business, is not allowed to discriminate on the basis of age,” he said.
Paul Watson, a 20-year-old Oregon man, has brought his own challenges to Dick’s and Walmart. A judge recently dismissed the Dick’s lawsuit after the sides reached an undisclosed settlement. The case against Walmart had been scheduled to go to trial in January.
Dick’s did not respond to questions about the settlement. An attorney for Mr. Watson did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokesman for Walmart says the retail giant is confident in its age policy and feels it’s on solid legal and constitutional footing.
“We stand behind our decision, and we’re going to continue with that position,” said spokesman Randy Hargrove.
Florida, scene of February’s shooting at Stoneman Douglas, also moved in the wake of the massacre to change its law and create a 21-year age minimum for the purchase of rifles or shotguns.
Federal law already prohibits federally-licensed gun dealers from selling rifles and shotguns to people under the age of 18 and handguns to people under the age of 21.
The National Rifle Association launched a high-profile lawsuit challenging Florida, but the big issues in that case are on hold while the sides fight over whether the plaintiffs can proceed anonymously.
Gun-rights advocates say the lack of legal clarity on the issue means there’s potential for further court challenges.
“From Day One, we’ve maintained that there are many jurisdictions that have age discrimination laws that would prevent the companies from restricting access to sale based on age,” said Brandon Combs, president of the Firearms Policy Coalition.
But the federal restriction on handgun purchases already has been confirmed by the courts, indicating that plaintiffs challenging states will have a tough sell.
The Trump administration weighed in recently, expressing skepticism over age restrictions. A new school safety commission report doubted such laws do much to cut the number of homicides, suicides or unintentional deaths.
“Analyses of completed school shootings indicate that school shooters do not frequently use legal purchase as a method for obtaining firearms,” the report said. “More often, they obtain them from within the home or steal them. These findings suggest that modifying the minimum age of firearm purchase is unlikely to be an effective method for preventing or reducing school shootings.”
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