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(The Center Square) – A circuit court judge upheld a Virginia law Tuesday that extends background-check requirements to most private gun sales but ruled part of the law is unconstitutionally being applied.
Lynchburg Circuit Court Judge Patrick Yeatts ruled it is legal for the state to put conditions on private firearm sales and to require those sales to go through a background-check system. According to the ruling, precedent allows conditions on sales, such as a prohibition on felons or the mentally ill from buying a firearm. Virginia historically has run background checks only on commercial sales, but the court ruled it is within the scope of the state’s authority to extend these to private sales.
Two gun rights groups, Gun Owners of America and the Virginia Citizens Defense League, challenged the law in the lawsuit. The groups argued the right to purchase a firearm is implied in the right to possess a firearm and that the law directly infringes on that right.
“Background checks save lives and they are supported by huge majorities of Virginians, including gun owners,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who defended the state in the lawsuit, said in a news release. “Background checks keep guns away from dangerous people who are already barred from possessing firearms, like felons and domestic abusers, but even this simple, commonsense, widely-supported safety measure is still too much for the extremists in the gun lobby who sued to block it.”
Although facially constitutional, the court ruled the law is being unconstitutionally applied to adults under the age of 21 who seek to purchase a handgun through a private purchase. State law allows adults 18 through 20 to purchase handguns in private sales but not through commercial sales. Because the federal background check system automatically rejects handgun applicants who are under 21 years old, the court ruled this enforcement infringes on that person’s right to bear arms.
“Universal background check systems only work if they are truly universal, and we believe this potentially dangerous judicially created loophole is without basis in the law,” Herring said. “So while the judge agreed with nearly all of our arguments and largely upheld the law, we believe that this injunction, though limited and narrow, is worthy of higher review, and I intend to appeal it as soon as possible.”
Sales or transfers to immediate family members are exempt from the expanded background checks.
The background check law was one of several gun control measures passed by the Virginia General Assembly and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam after both chambers of the Legislature shifted from Republican control to Democrat control in the 2019 elections. Other new gun laws include a red-flag law, a law that restricts buying more than one handgun in a 30-day period and a law that allows local governments to put additional restrictions on guns.