Judge upholds most of new law requiring background checks for all Va. gun sales

Attendees at a rally in January protest new potential gun restrictions in Virginia. (Ryan M. Kelly)

By Graham Moomaw

(VM) – A Virginia judge has ruled that most of the state’s new law requiring background checks on all gun sales does not violate constitutional rights, except for a wrinkle that effectively bans people
between the ages of 18 and 21 from buying handguns.

Rejecting the bulk of a challenge brought by gun-rights groups, Lynchburg Circuit Court Judge F. Patrick Yeatts ruled that the new law — approved this year by the Democratic-led General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam — “does not violate the right to keep and bear arms” when applied to most people.

“Even though private sales and commercial sales are different, the Court is at a loss as to how the historical justifications of preventing felons and the mentally disabled from possessing firearms would allow conditions on commercial sales and not also justify conditions on private sales,” the judge wrote.

But the judge said the law goes beyond that limited purpose for younger gun buyers who could previously buy handguns through private sales but are now automatically rejected through the federal background checks system. Under federal law, licensed gun dealers can sell rifles and shotguns to buyers over 18, but handgun buyers must be at least 21. Federal law does not prohibit people under 21 from buying handguns from unlicensed sellers.

One of the plaintiffs in the case is 18-year-old Wyatt Lowman, who maintains he wants to purchase a handgun from another plaintiff’s private collection.

“Banning types of firearms is a prohibition, not a mere condition, infringing on the right to keep and bear arms and greatly reducing Lowman’s means of self-defense,” the judge wrote.

The judge issued a narrow injunction blocking the state from enforcing the law against 18-,19- and 20-year-olds seeking to buy handguns.

Because anyone over 21 can still get a handgun with a background check, the judge ruled,

Attorney General Mark Herring said he intends to appeal that injunction “as soon as possible.”

“Universal background check systems only work if they are truly universal, and we believe this potentially dangerous judicially created loophole is without basis in the law,” Herring said in a statement.

The case was brought against the state by the Virginia Citizens Defense League and Gun Owners of America.

The law was presented as a way to prevent unchecked firearm sales at gun shows or through sales made between private individuals. If a gun owner and prospective buyer want to make a transaction, they can go to a federally licensed dealer to have a background check.

The new law took effect July 1, along with several other gun-control measures.

Last month, a different judge rejected a similar legal effort to block enforcement of a law limiting handgun purchases to one per month for most Virginians.


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