TALLAHASSEE — A full federal appeals court said Friday it will take up a legal battle over a 2018 Florida law that bars sales of rifles and other long guns to people under 21.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a March decision by a three-judge panel that upheld the constitutionality of the law. The Atlanta-based court said the case will be “reheard en banc,” meaning by the full court.
The one-paragraph order did not explain the court’s reasons. But the National Rifle Association, which challenged the constitutionality of the law, sought a rehearing by the full court.
The Legislature and then-Gov. Rick Scott approved the law after a February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Nikolas Cruz, who was 19 at the time, used an AR-15 rifle to kill 17 students and staff members and injure 17 others at the school.
Federal law already prohibited the sale of handguns to people under 21.
The NRA filed a lawsuit after the 2018 law passed. But Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in 2021 rejected the challenge, ruling that previous court opinions have given states leeway to impose Second Amendment restrictions in some instances.
The NRA appealed, with the three-judge panel issuing its ruling on March 9.
The panel decision relied heavily on guidance from a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in a case known as New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which said gun laws must be “consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”
The panel said the Florida law is consistent with such tradition and pointed to age restrictions since the Reconstruction era. It also said the law allows people under 21 to possess or use guns, such as guns they receive as gifts.
“To begin with, the act is no more restrictive than its forebearers: While the act burdens 18-to-20-year-olds’ rights to buy firearms, unlike its Reconstruction era analogues, it still leaves 18-to-20-year-olds free to acquire any type of firearm — including ‘the quintessential self-defense weapon,’ the handgun … in legal ways, as long as they don’t buy the weapons,” Judge Robin Rosenbaum wrote in an opinion joined fully by Judge Anne Conway. Judge Charles Wilson wrote a short concurring opinion.
But the NRA on March 30 filed a motion seeking a rehearing by the full court. Along with disputing the panel’s historical analysis, the NRA said in the motion that “denying hundreds of thousands of law-abiding, responsible citizens a fundamental right raises a question of exceptional importance warranting” a rehearing.
Friday’s order did not set a date for arguments.
The order came after a renewed debate in the Legislature this spring about the 2018 law. The House in April passed a bill that would have allowed people under 21 to buy rifles and other long guns, but the Senate did not take up the issue.
During a House debate, sponsor Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, said the bill “corrects the wrong we did in 2018.” He also argued it would leave intact other parts of the 2018 law that addressed mental health and school safety.
“You see the gun as the problem,” Payne said. “I see the interventions and the policies as the answer.”
But Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, a Democrat who was the Parkland mayor at the time of the shooting, pleaded with her colleagues to keep the age restriction in place.
“This law has stood the test of time because we have not had another school shooting in the state of Florida, and I hope to God we never do so that children will no longer hide, hit the ground when a balloon pops. … We are going down the wrong path here,” she said.