Before the Uvalde school attacker perpetrated obvious felonies such as capital murder and aggravated assault — before he even pulled the trigger — he had already committed numerous crimes. Among them was bringing a firearm on school premises, making a menacing public display of the weapon, and trespassing on school property.
Some people think there ought to be another law, as if just one more penal provision would have averted the tragedy in Uvalde. They are demanding that Gov. Greg Abbott call a special session so the Legislature can outlaw the purchase of semiautomatic rifles by adults between the ages of 18 and 20.
Reflexively enacting this gun-control measure would be no quick fix for school shootings, however, in no small part because it is patently unconstitutional.
And it would be wrong. Young adults have the same rights as other adults, including the right to self-defense. The Heritage Foundation notes that “Americans use their firearms in self-defense between 500,000 and 3 million times annually.” Though no government agency tracks those incidents and records the ages of those who defended themselves, many are surely younger than 21.
We can’t answer lawlessness with more lawlessness or a disregard for the Constitution. Even the notoriously liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agrees with that.
This year, the court held that California violated the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it imposed a blanket ban on the sale of semiautomatic rifles to young adults between the ages of 18 and 20. Holding that such rifles are not “dangerous and unusual weapons,” which would have left them unprotected under Heller, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the age-based ban unconstitutionally deprives young adults of their right to lawful self-defense within the home.
The Second Amendment argument against a young-adult rifle ban has only gotten stronger with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark opinion in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, handed down after the May 24 Uvalde shooting. As Justice Clarence Thomas explained in striking down New York’s scheme to prevent carrying a handgun for self-defense, the days of treating the Second Amendment as a second-class right are over. Going forward, lower courts will have to scrutinize modern laws for consistency with the constitutional text and history.
The court’s decision has already changed the Second Amendment landscape in Texas, according to a respected federal judge in Fort Worth. This past month, Judge Mark Pittman held that the Bruen decision overrules 5th U.S. Circuit Court decisions allowing a young-adult handgun ban. On this basis, he has issued an injunction against a Texas law that prevents young adults from getting licensed to carry handguns in public.
In addition, the Texas Constitution independently guarantees a Texan’s “right to keep and bear arms in the lawful defense of himself.”
A young-adult rifle ban from the Legislature, whether enacted in a special session or in the regular session beginning in January, would not make Texas schools any safer. It would not even go into effect before being enjoined as unconstitutional — on the strength of that Ninth Circuit ruling, which struck down an identical provision.
The heart-wrenching tragedy in Uvalde has generated universal agreement that something must be done to avert a repeat of what happened there. Identifying the villain of Uvalde was easy; calibrating a meaningful response to the attacker’s murderous rampage will be hard.
It will take months of difficult deliberation for the Legislature to understand and address the interrelated problems of gun violence, mental health, school hardening, and law-enforcement failures. But there can be no unconstitutional lawless shortcuts.
Instead of passing a young-adult rifle ban that will immediately fail judicial scrutiny, the Legislature should continue working on bills that will actually make schools safer, without trampling the constitutional rights of law-abiding Texans.
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