The reasons to restrict handgun ownership for people under 21 are as obvious as they are sensible. Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The reasons to restrict handgun ownership for people under 21 are as obvious as they are sensible. Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court today told the National Rifle Association something the NRA has always known: Under the U.S. Constitution, gun possession can be legally regulated.

The court declined to review two lower court rulings restricting the rights of Americans under age 21 to own handguns. The decisions run counter to the ferocious liberalization of gun laws throughout the nation after the court's 2008 Heller decision, in which a polarized 5-4 majority blew past the Second Amendment language on a "well regulated militia" and established an individual right to firearms. Heller has since been supplemented by other court decisions that have made it far easier, for example, to obtain permits for concealed carry of firearms. (Florida, which has aggressively pressed its case as the most reckless state in the union on gun legislation, has issued more than 1 million permits.) Now "open carry" has become a rallying cry in Texas and elsewhere, as gun enthusiasts, including those mindful of a firearm's power to intimidate, seek to carry firearms unconcealed in public.

Yet even the court's conservative majority in Heller affirmed the right of government to regulate gun possession. Antonin Scalia plainly stated: "Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited."

That message failed to penetrate the gun-rights movement. "Given the number of laws enacted by the federal government, states, and localities in the years when a mistaken understanding of the Second Amendment held sway, one would have expected a major reconsideration of extant firearms laws to have occurred," the NRA stated in its petition to the court seeking to overturn a ban prohibiting federally licensed gun dealers from selling handguns to anyone younger than 21. The petition declined to mention that, before Heller, the gun-rights organization itself shared that "mistaken understanding" of individual gun rights. The NRA originally fought to keep the suit from reaching the Supreme Court -- no doubt on the reasonable suspicion that even a conservative majority would rule that gun rights are tied to service in a militia.

That didn't happen. Nor did victory sate the gun lobby's appetite for more guns held by more people in more places. The reasons to restrict handgun ownership for people under 21 are as obvious as they are sensible. As a 2013 report from the National Academy of Sciences states, behaviors and characteristics associated with adolescence are "positively correlated with increased risk for firearm violence." Fortunately, the high court has reaffirmed its conviction that the right to bear arms has limits.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.