Good news out of Virginia, where a federal judge has rejected a motion by the DOJ meant to moot a challenge to the federal statute barring handgun sales to adults younger than 21. Fraser v. ATF was filed back in June of last year by John Corey Fraser, a student at Hamden-Sydney College in Farmville, and despite efforts by the DOJ to have the case dismissed, in May U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne granted summary judgment in favor of Fraser and his co-plaintiffs, ruling that the law violates the Second Amendment rights of young adults.
DOJ had argued that because federal law only prohibits the commercial sale of handguns to under-21s, their rights were still intact because they could have a parent purchase a firearm for them, or could buy a handgun themselves in a private party sale. Payne rejected that reasoning, ruling that the Second Amendment not only encompasses the right to keep and bear arms but to buy one as well: “Even though an 18-to-20-year-old can possess a gun given by a parent, the constitutional right of that 18-to-20-year-old to purchase that gun would still be implicated by the regulations.”
That favorable ruling wasn’t the end of the story, however. Even before Payne’s decision, there was an unanswered question about whether Fraser’s case could be certified as a class action, and shortly after the judge granted summary judgment, Fraser and his attorneys filed a request for an injunction halting enforcement of the statute in question. Payne instructed the two sides to confer and come to an agreement on the next steps. According to the judge, DOJ and Fraser’s attorneys couldn’t find common ground on the class certification, which doesn’t surprise me. After all, if DOJ can keep the case stalled until Fraser and the other plaintiffs all turn 21, government attorneys could argue that the case is now moot. Certifying all under-21s as a class, on the other hand, would make it impossible for plaintiffs to age out of the litigation.
Fraser has, in fact, now reached the age where he can now walk into Farmville Sporting Goods and purchase a handgun himself, but his younger brother Justin asked to be added to the list of named plaintiffs just to ensure that the case can proceed. As expected, DOJ objected to the move, arguing that the motion wasn’t filed in a timely fashion and was an “improper attempt at post-judgment intervention.”
On Thursday Judge Payne once again rejected the DOJ’s position and granted the motion for the younger Fraser to become a party to the lawsuit. In a stinging rebuke to government attorneys, Payne scoffed at DOJ’s assertion that adding Justin Fraser would prejudice their position in the case by “allowing a litigant to reap the benefits of the Court’s summary judgment ruling without having to assume the risks of litigation.”
Considering that the stated reason for joinder of Justin Fraser as a party plaintiff is to assure that the case will not become moot on appeal (as did the kindred case of Hirschfeld v.Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, & Tobacco, 5 F.4th 407 (4th Cir.2021), vacated as moot by, 14 F.4th 322 (4th Cir. 2021)), the Government’s claim of prejudice warrants no credence. In this case, the Government has represented that it plans to appeal the final order to be issued in this case. And, it is not unlikely that the losing side on appeal will seek review by the Supreme Court of the United States. Given the time that the appellate process likely will take, it is entirely possible that the presently named Plaintiffs could age out while the appellate process is underway. If that were to occur, the case could be dismissed as moot, and a new case would be filed challenging the statute and rules that are the subject of the decisions presented, briefed, argued, and decided here. Allowing Justin Fraser to be added as a party now will preserve jurisdiction during the appellate process and will conserve judicial resources and contribute to judicial efficiency.
That result is especially appropriate because both parties brought the resolution of the case forward at the earliest possible movement by filing dispositive motions. Both were charged with knowledge that a decision on the other side’s motion could end the case before the district court. In that circumstance and considering the fate of Hirschfeld, the Government’s objection to add Justin Fraser as a party to preserve jurisdiction during the appellate process is without merit.
As Payne noted, we’ve already had at least one similar challenge rendered moot because the plaintiffs aged out of the lawsuit before a final judgment was issued. Adding Justin Fraser to the list of named plaintiffs will keep this case moving forward for another three years, and if Payne ultimately agrees to certify the lawsuit as a class action then even if Justin Fraser turns 21 before the Supreme Court has a chance to weigh in the lawsuit will remain alive and intact.
We still have to see what the judge will do with that request, as well as the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction against the law barring commercial sales of handguns to adults younger than 21, but based on his prior rulings in this case I’m optimistic that he’ll grant their request for relief. At the very least he’s denied DOJ an easy way out of this lawsuit, and that in itself is a small victory for Second Amendment advocates.