La. gun laws challenged in juvenile case

A Baton Rouge defense attorney is challenging the validity of two firearms laws in light of an amendment to the state constitution approved last year that made the right to bear arms fundamental in Louisiana.

The case involves a 16-year-old boy, identified in court records as J.M., who was caught out after curfew and found to be in possession of a handgun when patted down by police.

Attorney Jack Harrison, of the East Baton Rouge Parish Public Defender’s Office, asked a Juvenile Court judge to declare unconstitutional the state laws that forbids illegal possession of a handgun by a juvenile, and the illegal carrying of a concealed weapon.

The state Attorney General’s Office is opposing Harrison’s motions, arguing both laws are valid and should be upheld.

Judge Pamela Taylor Johnson said she will issue a written ruling April 30.

Louisiana voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment last year that requires “strict scrutiny” of any restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms, giving the state the strongest gun rights laws in the country. The state constitution now says the right of each citizen to bear arms “is fundamental and shall not be infringed.”

The amendment, strongly supported by the National Rifle Association, replaced previous language that said the right to bear arms “shall not prevent the passage of laws to prohibit the carrying of weapons concealed on the person.” The new legal standard requires courts to determine whether the state’s gun laws demonstrate “a compelling governmental interest” and are narrowly tailored when deciding whether they meet constitutional muster.

“Because of the compelling state interest in protecting people from violent crime, courts should uphold gun control laws which prohibit convicted violent felons from having guns,” said David B. Kopel, an adjunct professor of advanced constitutional law at the University of Denver and Second Amendment scholar.

Harrison, the public defender, said that Louisiana voters, by removing a constitutional provision allowing for the passage of laws to prohibit the carrying of concealed weapons, “have clearly removed this ability from the authority of the legislature.” He added that the “fundamental nature of the right to bear arms means that such right belongs to citizens of all ages, as does the right to free speech, the right to exercise one’s religion and the right to due process.”

The many exceptions in state law allowing juveniles to carry handguns in certain circumstances, Harrison argued, “mean the apparent public safety interest of keeping guns out of the hands of kids is a fallacy.”

Prosecutors countered that the laws serve a “compelling interest in keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of children.”

“Louisiana’s minor in possession law is designed as a safety driven, age-based restriction on handgun possession, and therefore does not impinge on the right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment,” Assistant Attorney General Colin Clark argued in a court filing.

A state District Court judge in New Orleans ruled last month that the state law forbidding felons from possessing firearms ran afoul of the newly-minted constitutional provision. His ruling was appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said his office is opposing several motions similar to Harrison’s.

“Despite the restrictions of the new law,” Moore said, “I believe that the current laws remain constitutional and will withstand strict scrutiny, particularly those gun-related statutes that deal with felons, drugs and school property.”