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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Proposal would scrap 2018 law that raised age for buying 'long' guns from 18 to 21

Gunning of America
Lisa Marie Pane
A row of AR-15 style rifles manufactured by Daniel Defense sit in a vault at the company's headquarters in Black Creek, Ga. In Florida, guns are expected to be a major issue during the 60-day legislative session that begins Tuesday.

Five years ago, lawmakers increased the minimum age to purchase "long" guns after a 19-year-old used a semi-automatic rifle in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre. A bill would drop the age back to 18.

Two House Republicans on Monday filed a proposal that would lower the minimum age from 21 to 18 to buy rifles and other “long” guns, potentially scrapping a high-profile change passed after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, and Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island, filed the proposal (HB 1543) as lawmakers prepared to begin the annual legislative session Tuesday.

Lawmakers in 2018 increased the minimum age from 18 to 21 to purchase long guns after former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz, then 19, used a semi-automatic rifle to kill 17 students and faculty members and injure 17 others.

Federal law already barred people under 21 from buying handguns.

The Republican-controlled Legislature’s 2018 decision was highly unusual in a state that had expanded gun rights over decades. The National Rifle Association immediately filed a challenge in federal court, arguing that the law violated the Second Amendment.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in 2021 upheld the constitutionality of the law. Walker said he was following legal precedent, though he also described the case as falling “squarely in the middle of a constitutional no man’s land.”

The NRA appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court heard arguments in May but has not ruled.

During the arguments, NRA attorney John Sweeney contended that 18-year-olds in Florida “do not enjoy the same freedoms guaranteed the rest of the adults in this country” by the Second Amendment.

But in a document filed in district court, attorneys for the state wrote that people ages 18 to 20 are a “particularly high-risk group” and pointed to scientific evidence about impulsive and risky behavior.

“Empirical evidence bears out that because 18-to-20-year-olds are uniquely likely to engage in impulsive, emotional, and risky behaviors that offer immediate or short-term rewards, drawing the line for legal purchase of firearms at 21 is a reasonable method of addressing the Legislature’s public safety concerns,” the document said.

In his ruling upholding the law, Walker, in part, focused on a landmark 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case known as District of Columbia v. Heller. While the Heller case is broadly considered a major victory for gun-rights supporters, it also said certain “longstanding prohibitions” about guns do not violate the Second Amendment, according to Walker’s ruling.

The Heller case cited prohibitions on such things as felons and mentally ill people possessing guns, Walker concluded that restrictions on 18-to-20-year-old people buying guns were “analogous” to the restrictions cited in the Heller case.

As of mid-afternoon Monday, a Senate bill had not been filed to lower the minimum gun-purchasing age from 21 to 18, according to information on the Senate website.

Guns were already expected to be a major issue during the 60-day legislative session, as the House and Senate have started moving forward with proposals that would allow people to carry concealed weapons without licenses.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.