The Justice Department is expected to appeal and ask for the ruling to be put on hold as the case is further adjudicated.
The case has three plaintiffs, all between 18 and 20 years old. One, John "Corey" Fraser, was refused when he attempted to buy a Glock 19x from a Federal Firearm Licensed Dealer (FFL). The other two want to buy a handgun but haven't tried, in light of Fraser's experience.
The challenged provision of the Gun Control Act of 1968 didn't prohibit possession by 18- to 20-year-olds, it only made it illegal for FFL's to sell handguns to them. Rifles and shotguns have no such federal restriction.
The ruling is the latest in a string of defeats for gun-control measures. The trend is driven by the application of a new constitutionality test prescribed in the Supreme Court's 2022 Bruen decision.
This week's ruling is particularly significant because it's one of the first that uses Bruen to kill a federal law, as opposed to a state one. In February, a federal court applying the Bruen test shot down a 30-year-old law banning gun ownership by people subject to domestic-violence restraining orders
Using the Bruen test, a gun-control law can only be upheld if the government demonstrates that it's "consistent with the nation's historical tradition of firearm regulation." Further, when examining the record, judges are compelled to give the most weight to historical sources from the era of the Second Amendment's 1791 ratification.
In Thursday's ruling, Judge Robert E. Payne of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia concluded the government's defense of the age-21 law failed the Bruen test:
"The government has not presented any evidence of age-based restrictions on the purchase or sale of firearms from the colonial era, Founding or Early Republic," wrote Payne in a 71-page decision.