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Gun rights group files latest lawsuit challenging new age restrictions

The Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association is suing the state again, this time asking Chancery Court to strike down a new law forbidding most 18-to-21-year-olds from purchasing or possessing firearms.

The Association’s latest lawsuit challenges a bill passed in the wake of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas by an 18-year-old; the bill broadly prohibits those under 18 from purchasing or possessing most firearms, with exceptions for members of the armed forces and law enforcement officers. The bill also exempts shotguns from the ban.

While federal law already prohibits those under 21 from purchasing handguns, Association President Jeff Hague says this law is so expansive that it violates federal and state constitutional protections – both the rights to bear arms and 14th Amendment protections against age discrimination.

“Why is the law discriminating against a certain class of person just because of their age? " he asked. "For eons, if you look at the history of the 18-year-old age of majority, that lends itself to all sorts of stuff – voting, serving in the military. You can’t drink alcohol, but that’s not a right – that’s a privilege.”

This suit joins others by the Association challenging bans on the sale of assault weapons and the sale or possession of large-capacity magazines. Hague says the need for these legal challenges suggests state lawmakers are increasingly willing to pass bills quickly and let the courts answer unresolved disputes about their legality. He says that strategy is costly for Delaware residents.

“We pay twice," he said. "We pay for the deputy attorney general to argue it – his salary – and the legal costs associated with that. And then whoever donates to us is paying a second time.”

But House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf – the prime sponsor of the latest bill under fire – says the age restrictions draw from the same logic as the federal prohibition on handgun sales to people younger than 21.

"The US Supreme Court has determined that the Second Amendment is not absolute, that states can make reasonable modifications," he wrote. "More and more, the research shows that 18 is a delicate age, and allowing teens to walk into a store and purchase a firearm is inviting problems. In Delaware, the most common age for shooters has been 18-21 the past few years."

Schwartzkopf pointed to the bill's exemptions — some intended to allow young people to continue hunting or practicing marksmanship, for instance — as evidence that the restrictions are reasonable.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.