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NRA Renews Fight Over Florida's Age Restriction For Purchasing Guns

assault rifle
The gun-rights group alleges that the age restriction is an unconstitutional violation of the Second Amendment. FLICKR

After dropping an attempt to keep secret the identities of two plaintiffs, the National Rifle Association has relaunched a federal court challenge to a Florida law that raised the age to purchase rifles and other long guns.

The NRA filed the lawsuit last year, immediately following the passage of a sweeping school-safety law enacted in response to the mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 students and faculty members.

The massacre quickly became a flashpoint for gun-control activists, spawned the “March for Our Lives” movement -- led by Parkland student survivors -- and prompted the Republican-controlled Legislature to increase from 18 to 21 the age to purchase long guns, an age restriction already in place for buying handguns. Accused killer Nikolas Cruz, a former student at the school who was 19 years old at the time of the shooting, legally purchased the AR-15-style rifle that was used in the killings.

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The NRA challenged the constitutionality of the age restriction, but the lawsuit was on hold for more than a year because of a fight about whether two young adult plaintiffs could remain anonymous.

In an effort to get the case back on track, the NRA last week abandoned its effort to use pseudonyms for plaintiffs “Jane Doe” and “John Doe.” It filed an amended 12-page complaint Tuesday that named Radford Fant of Duval County, “a law-abiding, responsible citizen between the ages of 18 and 21,” as a new plaintiff.

Also on Tuesday, lawyers for Attorney General Ashley Moody, whose office is representing the state, and the NRA filed a joint scheduling motion, proposing deadlines in the lawsuit that, if agreed to by the judge, could lead to a trial next summer.

“Getting the primary case moving so the constitutional rights of Florida's young adults can be restored is a top priority with NRA,” Marion Hammer, the group’s Florida lobbyist and former national president, told The News Service of Florida in an email Wednesday morning.

The gun-rights group alleges that the age restriction is an unconstitutional violation of the Second Amendment right to “purchase firearms to defend themselves, their families, and their homes.”

“At 18 years of age, law-abiding citizens in this country are considered adults for almost all purposes and certainly for the purposes of the exercise of fundamental constitutional rights,” the NRA’s lawyers wrote. “At 18, citizens are eligible to serve in the military --- to fight and die by arms for the country.”

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In Tuesday’s filing, the NRA argued the “age-based ban” imposes “a significant, unequal, and impermissible burden on the right to keep and bear arms of a class of millions of law-abiding 18-to-21-year-old citizens.”

But Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who played a key role in passing the legislation after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, defended the law.

"I continue to stand by this important legislation,” he said.

The case had been on hold at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because of the NRA’s attempt to keep anonymous two plaintiffs who were 19 years old when the case was filed. The NRA’s effort was based largely on a declaration filed by Hammer that detailed threatening emails she had received following the Parkland shooting.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker decided last year that previous court rulings forced him to reject the request to keep the plaintiffs anonymous. The NRA asked the Atlanta-based appeals court to overturn Walker’s ruling on the anonymity issue. But it decided to dismiss the appeal last week, a request that was approved Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Walker issued an order lifting a stay in the underlying case, putting it back in motion.

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