Two Albemarle County residents are suing the U.S. government claiming that a federal law restricting sales of handguns to citizens younger than 21 is unconstitutional.

The lawsuit is filed in federal court in Charlottesville on behalf of a 20-year-old male University of Virginia student and an 18-year-old woman.

The suit names U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the ATF’s acting director, Thomas Brandon, as defendants. They were named because their organizations regulate sales and purchases of firearms and the licensing of federally authorized dealers.

The federal officials have not yet responded to the suit. Defendants usually have between 30 and 60 days to respond to a complaint.

According to the suit, Tanner Hirschfeld and Natalia Marshall were turned away by local firearms dealers when they applied to purchase handguns.

“Currently, young adults may purchase higher-powered firearms, including rifles and shotguns, from federally licensed dealers, but they cannot purchase handguns or handgun ammunition,” said Elliot Harding, the Charlottesville attorney who filed the suit.

Harding said legally licensed firearm and ammunition dealers cannot sell to persons under the age of 21, but private sales, as well as actual ownership and possession, are not illegal.

“The federal ban relegates young adults to an unregulated, limited market of private, personal transactions for handguns,” he said. “The suit seeks to preserve equal protection of the fundamental liberty to defend oneself, as guaranteed by the Second and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States.”

Although Virginia law prohibits those younger than 21 from obtaining a concealed handgun permit, state law does allow 18- to 20-year-olds to own a handgun and to carry it in public and in plain view.

But young adults cannot purchase a gun or ammunition from federally licensed dealers who are required to perform background checks on buyers.

According to the lawsuit, Hirschfeld wanted to purchase a handgun for self-defense and sport-shooting and had received training on the proper and safe operation and storage of firearms.

Hirschfeld attempted to buy a .357 magnum revolver from a local pawn shop but was denied because he was too young, the lawsuit states.

Marshall’s effort to purchase a semi-automatic pistol from a local sporting goods store met the same roadblock. She wanted to purchase the pistol for protection as she works in a remote area and had been in an abusive relationship in which she filed for a protection order.

“[She] wishes to obtain a handgun and handgun ammunition for the primary purpose of self-defense for several reasons,” the lawsuit states. “She believes a handgun is the most suitable firearm for this purpose due to the ease of open-carry and ease of training and use, if necessary.”

The suit states that carrying a rifle, which Marshall could legally purchase from a licensed dealer, would prove impractical due to size and portability.

The lawsuit states that both Marshall and Hirschfeld would prefer to legally buy their pistols from a federally licensed dealer rather than a private Virginia resident because of a better selection of new merchandise and the assurance that no one has tampered with it.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits licensed dealers from selling handguns or ammunition for those weapons to persons younger than 21. The law also prohibits gun sales by a licensed dealer to people who are under indictment or convicted of a crime punishable by more than a year of incarceration.

Also prohibited are sales to fugitives; users of illegal drugs or addicts, including those with state-issued legal medical marijuana cards; those judged to have a mental illness or who have been committed; illegal aliens or those in the country on a non-immigrant visa; those dishonorably discharged from the military; those who renounced citizenship; and anyone under a court-authorized restraining order or who has been convicted of domestic violence.

When the gun act was passed, the federal government and most states recognized the age of majority as 21. That changed four years later when President Richard M. Nixon signed the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which extended the right to vote to18- to 20-year-olds.

Since then, federal courts repeatedly have ruled that the amendment only provides for voting rights and does not require 18- to 20-year-olds be eligible for jury duty, be allowed to hold public office or be allowed to buy alcohol.

However, the lawsuit claims that the Second Amendment’s right for citizens to bear arms and the Fifth Amendment’s promise of due process and equal protection apply to adults between 18 and 21 years old and that the Gun Control Act violates those protections.

“These laws infringe upon and impose an impermissible burden upon the plaintiffs’ rights to keep and bear arms,” the lawsuit claims. “These laws violate the plaintiffs’ right to equal protection of the laws guaranteed under the due process clause.”

The lawsuit asks the federal court to declare the gun act to be unconstitutional and to stop enforcement of the age restrictions in regards to handgun and ammunition sales. It seeks court and attorneys fees, but makes no claim to monetary relief.  

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Bryan McKenzie is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7271, bmckenzie@dailyprogress.com or @BK_McKenzie on Twitter.

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