Baton Rouge judge strikes down parts of state’s juvenile gun law

A judge on Tuesday struck down several exceptions to Louisiana’s ban on juveniles possessing handguns, including a little-known provision allowing youngsters to carry handguns as long as they have written permission from a parent.

Judge Pamela Taylor Johnson of East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Court upheld the remaining language in the ban, which forbids handgun possession among youths under the age of 17.

But she also ruled unconstitutional a separate firearms law that forbids the carrying of concealed weapons without a permit, though only as the statute pertains to juveniles.

The mixed ruling came after a Baton Rouge defense attorney challenged two gun laws in light of a constitutional amendment approved by voters last year making the right to bear arms fundamental in Louisiana.

The lawyer, Jack Harrison, asked Johnson to strike down the state’s ban on juvenile handgun possession and the concealed weapons law, likening the right to bear arms to freedom of speech and the fundamental right to due process.

“We’re pleased that she has put some thought into the ruling and now there is something for the higher courts to consider,” Harrison said. “I’m going to presume that the state is going to ask for a stay for the whole ruling to be appealed by a higher court.”

The state Attorney General’s Office had opposed Harrison’s challenge, arguing the statutes should be upheld. A spokesman for Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said Tuesday that state attorneys were still reviewing Johnson’s ruling and had no immediate comment.

In a five-page ruling, Johnson explained that she struck down the concealed weapons ban as it pertains to juveniles because it is duplicative, noting the law she upheld specifically bans juvenile handgun possession.

While that ban only addresses handguns, Johnson noted that “the majority of shootings committed by juveniles are committed with handguns.”

Johnson’s ruling did not address the constitutionality of the concealed weapons law as it pertains to adults.

The court challenge stemmed from the arrest of a 16-year-old boy, identified in court records as J.M., who was caught out after curfew and found in possession of a handgun when patted down by police.

Last year, Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment that requires “strict scrutiny” of any restrictions on the right to bear arms, giving the state the strongest gun rights laws in the country. The amendment replaced 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.”

Harrison argued that Louisiana voters, in passing the amendment, removed lawmakers’ authority to pass laws prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons.

State law now says the right to bear arms “is fundamental and shall not be infringed,” a change that has prompted legal challenges to state firearms statutes.

Earlier this year, a state District Court judge in New Orleans ruled the law forbidding felons from possessing firearms ran afoul of the new amendment. That ruling was appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The new legal standard requires courts to determine whether Louisiana gun laws demonstrate “a compelling governmental interest” and are narrowly tailored in deciding whether they meet constitutional muster.

In the Baton Rouge juvenile case, Johnson held that the juvenile handgun ban clearly “attempts to address a well known studied fact in our society, that the cognitive brain development of minors is not the same as an adult.”

While the defense may contend the new amendment carries no limitations on firearm possession, Johnson said, “it is clear that the Louisiana Legislature, as well as the courts, recognize the need for some limitation.”

Johnson upheld the constitutionality of the juvenile handgun ban — R.S. 14.95.8 — but ruled that four of the seven exceptions to the law fell short of a legal standard known as the “less restrictive means” test. Under that standard, laws restricting fundamental personal liberties must use the least restrictive means available.

Johnson approved exceptions in the law allowing juveniles to carry handguns when attending a hunter’s safety or firearms safety course; while practicing or target shooting at an established range; and while hunting or trapping with a valid license.

The exceptions Johnson ruled “should be severed” from state law allowed youth to carry handguns while traveling to or from a hunting outing, firearms safety or hunting safety course or a shooting range; while on real property with the permission of a parent or legal guardian and the property owner; while at home with the permission of a parent; and while possessing a handgun with written permission from a parent.

Harrison said those four exceptions were exceedingly uncommon defenses. “I’ve never seen a client with a note from his mother,” he said.