Wilson v. Lynch: Federal Court Rules Guns and Medical Marijuana Don’t Legally Mix

Marijuana LitigationIn Wilson v. Lynch, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that federal law prohibits registered medical marijuana users from legally purchasing guns. The plaintiff, S. Rowan Wilson attempted to purchase a gun in her home state of Nevada. Wilson contacted a firearms dealer who refused to sell to her because Wilson held a medical marijuana registry card.  The dealer was acting under federal law dictates that prohibit selling firearms to known drug users. Wilson brought a lawsuit in federal court against Attorney General Loretta Lynch to challenge the law preventing her from purchasing a firearm.

Wilson challenged federal statute 18 USC § 922, which prohibits unlawful drug users from owning firearms or ammunition and prohibits firearm dealers from selling guns to known drug users. Wilson also challenged regulations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). In September 2011, the ATF issued a letter stating that federally licensed firearms dealers could not sell to medical marijuana users because marijuana was an unlawful drug. Wilson argued this letter was invalid because the ATF failed to provide an opportunity for the public to comment on its proposed interpretation of federal law. The court disagreed, ruling that the letter was an interpretive rule, meaning the ATF could enforce it without first providing notice to the public.

The court also upheld the statute. On the issue of gun ownership by an unlawful drug user, the court determined that Wilson lacked standing to challenge the law. Wilson alleged, and the court accepted as true, that she was not actually a marijuana user, but instead obtained a registry card as a sign of support for legalization. Wilson also never claimed she actually owned a firearm. As a result, the federal law preventing unlawful drug users from possessing firearms did not injure her and she could not challenge it.

On the issue of purchasing a gun, the court ruled that Wilson’s Second Amendment rights were not impeded by the law. The court used a two-prong analysis to determine that the law did not violate the Second Amendment. First, the court examined whether the law burdened conduct protected by the Second Amendment. Second, the court examined whether the restriction is appropriate, weighing the importance of the government’s interest in enforcing the law with the restriction on the individual’s right.

The court determined that the restriction on the sale of guns was something traditionally protected by the Second Amendment. On the second prong of the analysis, the court reasoned that only the manner in which Wilson could obtain firearms was burdened. The court stated the law and ATF letter “bar only the sale of firearms to Wilson–not her possession of firearms. Wilson could have amassed legal firearms before acquiring a registry card.” The court also noted that Wilson could surrender her registry card to illustrate she was not an unlawful drug user and she would then be able to purchase firearms.

The court concluded that the government has a substantial interest in preventing gun violence and that the law prohibiting illegal drug users from buying firearms was reasonably related to that interest. The government cited to previous cases where it had presented studies showing a link (not a causal connection) between violence and illegal drug use, including marijuana. The court accepted the reasoning, but conveyed concern that Wilson did not challenge the evidence:

While it would have been helpful for the Government to provide the studies in this case, Wilson has not challenged their methodology. We therefore have no occasion to evaluate the reliability of the studies and surveys, and instead accept them as probative.

Critics of this case, including Wilson’s own lawyer, point out the hypocrisy of allowing persons on the no-fly list to purchase guns while medical cannabis users cannot. The federal government simply does not provide broad protections for unlawful drug users. Medical marijuana users are included in this category and, as a result, their Second Amendment rights have been limited. Until the law changes, this type of decision should not be surprising.