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Pennsylvania Gun Law for Young Adults Ruled Unconstitutional

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

The Second Amendment gives Americans the right to bear arms, but who does it apply to? Though it's long been an important part of the Bill of Rights, it continues to be debated — in no small part due to the confusing text. The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution states: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

The second part, "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms," could be open to interpretation. And recently, in Lara v. Commissioner PA State Police, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals laid down its own reading of the phrase. In a case that started in Pennsylvania and has gone up through the federal courts, the result has been an expansion of gun rights. The upshot was the striking down of a state law that tried to ban young people (ages 18 to 20) from carrying firearms in public during a state of emergency.

Pennsylvania Reigns in Young Gunners

In Pennsylvania, you have to have a license to carry a concealed firearm, and you have to be at least 21 to apply for that license. You can normally carry firearms openly without a concealed-carry permit. But the state law prevents you from doing so during a “state of emergency” proclaimed by the government. However, having a concealed-carry license lets you carry a firearm even during a state of emergency. There are also other exceptions for people “actively engaged in a defense” and about fifteen other exceptions that we don’t need to delve into. To sum it up, the exceptions together make it such that adults in Pennsylvania under 21 can’t carry firearms in a state of emergency.

You might think: that’s maybe a little unfair, but how often is that really going to happen? But believe it or not, Pennsylvania had recently been in a state of emergency nonstop for three years. This was due to some combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis, and Hurricane Ida. And when 2020 came around, the state was several years into a long stretch of emergency states. That’s when some Second Amendment advocates got tired of the law. Two gun rights groups, the Second Amendment Foundation and Firearms Policy Coalition, and a few young adults from the state (including the titular Madison Lara), filed a lawsuit calling out the restriction on their gun rights as unconstitutional.

But the Lara case wasn’t decided in a vacuum. It stood on the shoulders of two other major Second Amendment cases that came before it: Heller and Bruen, and to get a better idea of what the Third Circuit was thinking, it’s important to take a look at that precedent.   

To Heller and Back

In 2008, the landmark Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller established a major turning point in the interpretation of the Second Amendment. In the majority opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment's plain text, historical context (particularly the English Bill of Rights and the writings of the Founding Fathers), and English common law tradition all supported the existence of an individual right to own guns for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.

In the same opinion, SCOTUS also struck down D.C.'s handgun ban and trigger lock requirement. The Court found that D.C.'s complete ban on handguns and its requirement that guns in the home be kept disassembled or bound by a trigger lock violated the newly recognized individual right to bear arms.

At the same time, the decision did acknowledge limitations on the Second Amendment right. The Court emphasized that the right to bear arms is not unlimited and that the government can still enact reasonable regulations on gun ownership. Examples of such regulations include background checks, bans on certain types of firearms, and restrictions on carrying guns in sensitive places.

The Court was narrowly divided. The four dissenting justices argued that the majority's interpretation of the Second Amendment was incorrect and that the amendment only protects the right of states to maintain militias. The Heller decision has had a profound impact on gun laws in the United States. It has been cited in numerous subsequent court cases and has led to changes in gun control legislation at both the federal and state levels. The decision continues to be a source of debate and controversy, with proponents arguing that it protects the fundamental right of self-defense and opponents arguing that it makes it too easy for dangerous individuals to obtain guns.

Bruen Up a Storm

In 2022, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen built upon the previous Heller decision, similarly alluding to the plain text of the amendment and historical context, including English common law.

Relevant to the Pennsylvania case was Bruen’s articulation of a two-step test on whether a given gun regulation can stand under the Constitution. The first step is for a court to ask whether the Second Amendment’s plain text covers an individual’s conduct. If the text applies to the conduct at issue, then there is a presumption that the conduct is protected under the Constitution. The second step is asking if the regulation in question “is consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.” If it is, the presumption from step one is set aside, and the regulation is okay under the Constitution.

Third Circuit Strikes Down the Restriction

The Pennsylvania Commissioner tried to argue that 18-20-year-olds were not among “the people” included in the text of the Second Amendment, but the Third Circuit disagreed. Circuit Judge Kent Jordan wrote that the "words 'the people' in the Second Amendment presumptively encompass all adult Americans, including 18- to 20-year-olds, and we are aware of no founding-era law that supports disarming people in that age group." Next, the Commissioner must show that evidence of founding-era regulations supports Pennsylvania’s restriction on 18-to-20-year-olds owning guns. The court was not convinced.

The Pennsylvania gun law was ruled unconstitutional. There will be an injunction forbidding the Commissioner from arresting law[1]abiding 18-to-20-year-olds who openly carry firearms during a state of emergency declared by the Commonwealth. In other words, the gun restriction will not take effect, and Pennsylvanians in this age group will be able to openly carry in states of emergency. The case marks another victory for Second Amendment advocates.

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