Fred Grimm: Another loser challenge from Florida

09/07/2013 1:34 PM

09/12/2014 7:30 PM

Pam and Rick were hanging out in Tallahassee last week, putting our government priorities in order. They wondered, “What can we do to improve the lives of Floridians?”

Of course, you already know the answer. Couldn’t be more obvious. We’ll trick out 18-year-olds with handguns.

Yes, indeed. We who can not abide the notion of an 18-year-old bellying up to the bar for a Budweiser sure as hell want to spend taxpayer money to insure the same knucklehead can buy himself a Beretta.

So Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has committed state resources to that great cause and joined yet another quixotic lawsuit, this one against the United States government. Bondi added Florida to a list of NRA subsidiary states seeking to overturn a 45-year-old federal law that forbids licensed gun dealers from selling handguns to anyone under 21.

It’s another likely loser of a case. Like Rick and Pam’s futile attempt to overturn the Affordable Health Care Act. Over the last few years, the Scott years, we’ve frittered away hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in court defending an ideological agenda. State lawyers and pricey outside law firms have been dispatched to state and federal court to defend, without much success, the privatization of prisons, drug testing of welfare recipients, drug testing of state workers (though not state legislators or the governor) the shifting of pension costs onto state workers, and election laws designed to tamp down turnout among minority voters.

Our lawyers are still fighting, on behalf of the NRA, that mindless violation of the First Amendment known as Docs-versus-Glocks, a state law that severely limits what doctors — even pediatricians and psychiatrists — can discuss with their patients about firearms.

Last week, after the state lawyers were pummeled first in U.S. district court, then the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, the state did, finally, give up defending a blatantly unconstitutional state law that would have barred any company that has done business with Cuba or Syria, or was vaguely associated with a company that has done business with Cuba or Syria, from competing for public contracts in Florida. Of course the law, contrived by Miami’s Sen. René García and Rep. Michael Bileca, was nothing more than a sop to Cuban-American voters. Gov. Rick Scott, even as he signed their bill into law last year, noted that it was legally indefensible.

This little exercise in political theater was not cheap. Aside from the state’s own considerable costs to defend an unconstitutional intrusion into a federal domain, we’re now stuck with a half-million-dollar bill to cover the legal fees run up by Odebrecht USA, the construction company that challenged the ill-considered law.

This gun case doesn’t look much more promising. The appeal grew out of a lawsuit filed in 2010 by an 18-year-old Lubbock, Texas, kid named James A. D’Cruz. D’Cruz (now presumably old enough to buy all the guns he wants) has since moved down our way and is a senior at Florida International University. (His motto, on Facebook, “Bad for the Greater Good.”) But his lawsuit lives on.

A famously conservative, gun-friendly federal district judge in Texas, Sam R. Cummings, decided that D’Cruz and his fellow NRA juniors had failed to make a valid Second Amendment claim. The NRA rounded up more young plaintiffs and appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. But the three-judge panel unanimously whacked them down.

The appeals court noted that the 1968 law is not particularly restrictive. Only licensed dealers are prohibited from peddling handguns or handgun ammo to anyone under 21. Gifts or private sales aren’t affected. Plus the law, a quaint reminder of the days when teenage gangbangers weren’t armed with AR-15 assault weapons, pointedly exempts the sale of shotguns and rifles.

The appeals panel noted that when the Supreme Court tossed out the Washington D.C. handgun ban in 2008, the landmark reinterpretation of the Second Amendment did not forbid “lawful regulatory measures” involving firearms.

The appeals court explored the historical background of the 1968 law, noting that Congress had been alarmed by the “causal relationship between the easy availability of firearms other than a rifle or shotgun and juvenile and youthful criminal behavior.” And that young people with handguns were “significant factors in the prevalence of lawlessness and violent crime in the United States.”

Bondi and the NRA will have a hard time arguing that times have changed. The appeals panel cited federal firearm homicide statistics over the years showing that the under-21 set are still shooting up the joint. “Recent data confirm that preventing handguns from easily falling into the hands of 18-to-20-year-olds remains critical to public safety. An FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2009 shows that persons aged 19, 18, and 20 accounted for the first, second, and third highest percentages of arrests, respectively, for any age up to age 24.”

The panel also noted, for those who want to reach back to the founders’ “original intent,” that at the time the Second Amendment was drafted, the age of majority was 21. And while the states relaxed age restrictions in the 1970s for some rights, under-21 prohibitions are still enforced for alcohol and gambling. The court noted that “majority or minority is a status, not fixed or vested right.”

And, of course, the 1968 law hardly compares to the overly restrictive D.C. firearm law the Supreme Court overturned in 2008, since the youngsters affected by the law, like the original plaintiff D’Cruz, will be able to buy guns and beer and Lotto tickets willy nilly after their 21st birthday.

It makes for a tough legal challenge, another unpromising case that states like Texas and Alabama would happily pursue without any help from Pam Bondi and company. Besides, it’s not like her legal team has been dazzling the federal judiciary.

But Rick and Pam will do this for us anyway. They’ll waste taxpayer money, fritter away the state’s legal resources and pursue loser lawsuits because nothing, but nothing, makes us feel safer than 18-year-old kids packing heat.

About Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm

@grimm_fred

Fred Grimm joined the Herald in 1976. Since 1991 he has written a column about crime, politics and life in Broward.

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