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Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals finds that Handgun Buyers Lacked Standing to Challenge Federal and Virginia Laws Restricting Interstate Handgun Transfers

Lane v. Holder
No. 11-1847 (4th Cir. Dec. 31, 2012)

by Wayne Heavener, Law Clerk
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (

In Lane v. Holder, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a decision by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissing constitutional challenges to federal and state statutes restricting interstate transfers of handguns because the plaintiffs lacked standing. Plaintiffs Michelle Lane, Amanda and Matthew Welling, and Second Amendment Foundation (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) challenged the constitutionality of a federal statute restricting interstate transfers of handguns, 18 U.S.C. §922(b)(3); a federal regulation implementing that statute, 27 C.F.R. §478.99; and a Virginia law prohibiting Virginia firearms dealers from selling handguns to non-residents, VA. CODE §18.2-308.2:2. The Court affirmed the district court’s decision, and held that Plaintiffs did not have standing to bring suit. In reaching its decision, the Court relied upon the fact that the challenged regulations did not affect Plaintiffs directly. Rather, the regulations affected only those selling handguns, which Plaintiffs sought to obtain. Therefore, Plaintiffs could neither demonstrate a particularized and imminent injury in fact, or that the injury would be redressed by the Court’s action.

As a means of strengthening federal control over interstate and foreign commerce in firearms, Congress required all interstate transfers of firearms to take place through a federal firearms licensee (“FLL”). 18 U.S.C. §922(a)(1)–(5). Under the statute, an FLL may sell a rifle or a shotgun to an out-of-state resident if meeting the transferee in person, in the state where the transferee wishes to buy the firearm. A buyer purchasing a handgun from an out-of-state source, however, must arrange for the handgun to be transferred from an out-of-state FLL to an in-state FLL. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms issued implementing regulations paralleling the federal statute. See 27 C.F.R. §478.99. Similarly, Virginia law permits the sale of a rifle or shotgun to a non-resident of Virginia, but prohibits the direct sale of handguns to a non-resident. VA. CODE §§18.2-308.2:2(B)(5) & (C). As in the federal statute, Virginia requires non-resident handgun buyers to send the firearm to a dealer in the non-resident’s home state.

Plaintiffs sought injunctive and declaratory relief against Eric Holder, Jr., as United States Attorney General, and W. Stephen Flahert, as Superintendent of the Virginia State Police, to prevent the enforcement of the federal and Virginia law restricting interstate handgun acquisition. Ms. Lane and Mr. and Mrs. Welling are residents of Washington, D.C., all of whom sought to acquire handguns from other states. Ms. Lane ordered two (2) handguns from an FLL in Virginia, but was unable to take possession of the firearms because Washington, D.C.’s sole FLL, Charles Sykes, had lost his lease. Mr. Sykes had since reestablished his business, and Ms. Lane has acquired one (1) of her handguns from him. Mr. and Mrs. Welling claimed that they "would participate more frequently in the market for handguns but for the interstate handgun transfer ban.” Lane v. Holder, No. 11-1847, slip op. at 4 (4th Cir. Dec. 31, 2012). The Second Amendment Foundation (“SAF”) is a non-profit membership organization with members from across the United States, including Washington D.C. and Virginia. SAF argued that the challenged laws have caused it to expend greater resources in fulfilling its mission to promote the exercise of the right to keep and bear arms. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia held oral argument on Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, and dismissed the case for lack of standing. Plaintiffs appealed to the district court’s dismissal.

Affirming the district court’s decision, the Court of Appeals held that Plaintiffs lacked standing. The Court observed that standing requires a plaintiff to (1) have suffered an “injury in fact” that is both concrete and particularized, and actual or imminent; (2) the injury must be fairly traceable to the challenged action; and (3) it is likely that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision. Plaintiffs failed to establish injury in fact because the challenged law neither burdened Plaintiffs directly, nor prevented them from acquiring the handguns they desired. Though the Court acknowledged that a plaintiff can demonstrate an injury in fact based upon the restriction of distribution channels, such regulation must affect the plaintiff directly. In this case, there is an absence of any direct effect on Plaintiffs, thereby “distinguish[ing] the facts before us from those in decision[s] on which [Plaintiffs] seek to rely.” Id. at 6. While other circuits have found standing for wine consumers prevented from acquiring wine directly from out-of-state sellers, see Freeman v. Corzine, 629 F.3d 146, 154 (3d Cir. 2010), those consumers were otherwise unable to acquire the wines they wished to purchase. In this case, Plaintiffs were not actually prevented from obtaining the handguns they desired, but put at a minor inconvenience by additional costs and logistical hurdles. Furthermore, the Court held that even if Plaintiffs could establish an injury in fact, they could not demonstrate that the alleged injury is traceable to the challenged laws. The Court noted that the challenged laws did not apply directly to either Ms. Lane or the Wellings, such that any actual injury to Plaintiffs was caused by the decisions and actions of third parties not before the Court.

The Court also rejected the argument that SAF had standing to bring the action, independent of whether Ms. Lane or the Wellings had standing. Though the Court acknowledged that an organization may suffer an injury in fact, the organization is still subject to the same standing inquiry as an individual. The Court rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that mere expense to the SAF constituted an injury in fact. Ultimately, the diversion of resources that might harm an organization results from the organization’s own budgetary choices. The Court found that to recognize standing for SAF based solely upon the organization’s budgetary prerogative would fail to comport with the case or controversy requirement of Article III of the Constitution. Therefore, neither the individual plaintiffs, nor the SAF had standing.