By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - The United States may ban federally licensed firearms dealers from selling handguns to people under age 21, an appeals court ruled on Thursday, in a defeat for the National Rifle Association.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Houston rejected the NRA's argument that 18- to 20-year-olds had a right to buy the guns under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment.
A unanimous three-judge panel said Congress, in a law dating from 1968, adopted the sales ban to help curb violent crime. It also said that the nation's founders and 19th-century courts and commentators believed that disarming specific groups did not trample on the right to bear arms.
"Congress was focused on a particular problem: young persons under 21, who are immature and prone to violence, easily accessing handguns," mainly from licensed dealers, Judge Edward Prado wrote for the panel.
"The present ban appears consistent with a longstanding tradition of age- and safety-based restrictions on the ability to access arms," he added.
Thursday's decision upheld a September 2011 ruling by District Judge Sam Cummings in Lubbock, Texas.
The case had been brought a year earlier by the NRA, firearms dealers and individuals against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is part of the Department of Justice.
The 5th Circuit said it was the first federal appeals court to address the ban since the Supreme Court in 2008 announced a broad Second Amendment right for individuals to keep and bear arms, in the case District of Columbia v. Heller.
"We are disappointed," said David Thompson, managing partner at Cooper & Kirk in Washington, who represents the NRA. "The ruling is inconsistent with the Supreme Court's opinion in Heller, and we are considering all of our appellate options."
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In reaching its conclusion, the 5th Circuit also rejected an NRA request that it apply "strict scrutiny" in considering the sales ban.
It said a less rigorous review was appropriate because the law did not prevent 18- to 20-year-olds from using handguns for self-defense and other lawful purposes, and people subject to the ban would eventually surmount it by turning 21.
"The government has satisfied its burden of showing a reasonable means-ends fit between the challenged federal laws and an important government interest," Prado wrote.
Prado was appointed to the 5th Circuit by President George W. Bush. He was joined in his opinion by Judge Carolyn Dineen King, who was appointed by President Jimmy Carter; and Judge Catharina Haynes, who was also appointed by Bush.
The case is National Rifle Association of America Inc et al v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives et al, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 11-10959.
(Editing by Martha Graybow and Xavier Briand)