A Federal judge ruled the prohibition of interstate handgun sales is unconstitutional. At issue in the case, Mance v. Holder, is a federal requirement under the 1968 Gun Control Act (GCA) that prohibits interstate handgun transfers to citizens who are not residents of the state in which the transaction occurs. Rifles and shotguns may be legally transferred to non-state residents, but not handguns. The plaintiffs argued that the federal interstate handgun ban makes no sense in the advent of the National Instant Check System (NICS), a federal background check system administered by the FBI that is required under the 1993 Brady Bill, which amended the 1968 GCA.
The plaintiffs argued the federal interstate handgun ban places an undue burden on a citizen’s right to exercise the Second Amendment and sued the government (U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is the defendant in the case). U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas, Fort Worth Division agreed with the plaintiffs; the court found the federal interstate handgun ban violates both the Second Amendment and the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The decision could have far-reaching ramifications.
These are the facts of the case: the plaintiffs, the Hansons, a husband and wife who reside in Washington, D.C., wished to buy two handguns from Mance, a Federal Firearms Licensed (FFL) dealer while in Texas. They were legally able to possess the firearms, and the sale would have been perfectly legal in both Texas and D.C.. The sale requires a background check through the NICS system at the point of sale – Texas in this case. However, the federal interstate handgun ban requires that the Hansons would have to have to pay to have the firearms shipped by Mance in Texas to a FFL dealer in D.C. There is only one FFL in D.C., Sykes, and Sykes keeps no inventory in stock. Once shipped to Sykes, an additional background check through NICS would be required and the Hansons would be required to pay additional transfer fees of $125 per firearm before they could take possession of them. Not wishing to pay the extra fees, they opted to not complete the purchase and Mance lost the sale.
The law violates the Second Amendment
The court’s decision stated that the law is both unconstitutional on its face (without examining specifics from the case), and that it is unconstitutional when applied to the specific facts of the case. Judge O’Connor stated “The Court concludes that Defendants have not shown that the federal interstate handgun transfer ban is narrowly tailored to be the least restrictive means of achieving the government’s goals under current law. The federal interstate handgun transfer ban is therefore unconstitutional on its face.” Additionally the ruling stated the “federal interstate handgun transfer ban is unconstitutional when applied to the facts of this case,” saying “the manner in which a statute was applied to the plaintiff… violated the Constitution.”
The court cited two landmark Supreme Court cases, D.C. v Heller and McDonald v Chicago, in the decision. Quoting from Heller the court reiterated “Constitutional rights are enshrined with the scope they were understood to have when the people adopted them, whether or not future legislatures or (yes) even future judges think that scope too broad.” And citing both Heller and McDonald, stated: “the scope of the Second Amendment right depends not on post-twentieth century developments, but instead on the understanding of the right that predominated from the time of ratification.”
The court said that if a law regulates activity that falls “outside the scope of the Second Amendment right as it was understood at the relevant historical moment – here, 1791 – then the analysis can stop there.” The court did find an “absence of any evidence of founding-era thinking that contemplated that interstate, geography-based, or residency-based firearm restrictions would be acceptable”. Therefore, the court ruled “the federal interstate handgun transfer ban burdens conduct that falls within the scope of the Second Amendment.”
The law violates the Due Process clause of Fifth Amendment
The court found the federal interstate handgun ban violates the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The court stated “Here, the federal interstate handgun transfer ban interferes with the exercise of a fundamental right.” The court further found that the ban “not only creates a discriminatory regime based on residency, but it also involves access to the constitutional guarantee to keep and bear arms.” The court stated the federal interstate handgun transfer ban “targets the entire national market of handgun sales and directly burdens law-abiding,responsible citizens who seek to complete otherwise lawful transactions for handguns.”
The law does nothing from a policy perspective to stop crime
The case demonstrates the law is ineffective from a policy perspective, noting that “as law-abiding, responsible citizens, the Hansons likely do not pose the threat to public safety that motivated Congress to enact the federal interstate handgun transfer ban.” The government, defending the federal interstate handgun ban, argued the government has a compelling reason to restrict gun rights to combat handgun crime. They argued the handgun ban combats the “serious problem of individuals going across state lines” to obtain guns they couldn’t otherwise obtain. To back their claims, the government cited the original 1968 Senate report that showed criminals crossed state lines to buy handguns from dealers to avoid local or state restrictions as justification to uphold the ban. But the court said the government failed “to show how the federal interstate handgun transfer ban alleviates, in a material way, the problem of prohibited persons obtaining handguns simply by crossing state lines … under the amended version of the 1968 Gun Control Act” (emphasis added). The court noted that the current NICS infrastructure didn’t exist in 1968, and the government relied solely on the Senate Report to the 1968 Gun Control Act to support the current need for the federal interstate handgun transfer ban.”
Virginia attorney Alan Gura, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said: “It is bizarre and irrational to destroy the national market for an item that Americans have a fundamental right to purchase. Americans would never tolerate a ban on the interstate sale of books or contraceptives. And Americans are free to buy rifles and shotguns outside their state of residence, so long as the dealers respect the laws of the buyer’s home state. We’re gratified that the Court agreed that handguns should be treated no differently.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs indicated that the government is likely to appeal, but they are confident the ruling will be upheld. The government was denied a 60-day stay request to ‘think about’ whether they want to appeal. If they do, the next steps would be the appellate courts and then the Supreme Court. Given that the case was decided based heavily on the two latest Supreme Court gun rights cases, it seems unlikely the decision would be reversed.
The court decision in its entirety is here: