A national debate over gun violence has erupted in the wake of the tragic shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Unlike past mass shootings, grieving and evidence-gathering have been superseded by fervent demands for gun control, with a particular emphasis placed on increasing age limits required to buy certain weapons.
Under federal law, the minimum age to buy a handgun from a licensed dealer is 21. The minimum age to buy a long gun (rifles and shotguns) is 18. Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz allegedly bought multiple weapons after he turned 18, including the AR-15 he used in the attack, leading to calls by many gun control supporters to raise the minimum age to purchase all weapons to 21.
According to #NeverAgain followers and gun control groups, one of the principal causes of mass shootings is immaturity. Therefore, the only reasonable solution, they argue, is to raise the minimum age to buy weapons.
This emotional, knee-jerk reaction fails to consider the myriad factors that contribute to the complex problems surrounding mass shootings, including mental illness, family breakdown and employment disturbances. But perhaps even more important, there’s no evidence raising legal age limits will solve the problem gun control advocates are attempting to address, and it’s wildly inconsistent and unfair for law-abiding adults responsible enough to own weapons.
The three most deadly mass shootings in the history of the United States have all been committed by individuals over the age of 21. In 2017, a 64-year-old killed 59 people in Las Vegas. In 2016, a 29-year-old killed 50 people in Orlando. In 2007, a 23-year-old on the campus of Virginia Tech University killed 33 people. A statistical analysis on mass shootings occurring in the United States from 1982 to 2018 revealed the average age of mass-shooting killers is 35.
Raising the legal age limit to purchase weapons wouldn’t have stopped any of these murders, so why is there such an extreme push to increase age limits now?
Age limits are a solution in search of a problem, but even more than that they are unjust and discriminate against adult Americans based on age. At the age of 18, all males must register for the draft under the Selective Service System, and Americans become eligible to join the military at 18.
Is it fair that the U.S. government can force an 18-year-old male to wield a weapon but then prevent that same individual from buying a weapon? Likewise, is it fair to ask a 19-year-old to fight and potentially die overseas but prevent him or her from owning a weapon? Why would a person be considered mature enough to drive a tank in Baghdad but prevented from owning a rifle at home?
States allow 18-year-olds to vote, too, but why should such a person be allowed to help choose the commander in chief, who has the power to destroy the world with thousands of weapons of mass destruction, but not be trusted with the ability to own a firearm?
Beyond the rampant age discrimination and ethical perils posed by an across-the-board age requirement, there’s also a whole host of other problems. What would happen to current “underage” owners of such weapons? Would this cohort, possibly in the millions, be grandfathered into federal or state bans? Would they be forced to give up their weapons? Even more important, is such a requirement even constitutional?
According to the Constitution, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” American law has consistently deemed that an 18-year-old is a fully formed adult, responsible for all his or her actions.
In 1971, prior to the ratification of the 26th Amendment, a Senate report found 18-year-olds are: “fully mature enough to vote,” “Bear all or most of an adult’s responsibilities” and should be allowed to “to influence our society in a peaceful and constructive manner.”
In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty could be applied in cases where the assailant was over the age of 18 at the time of the criminal offense, because 18-year-olds are considered adults who have a full understanding of the crimes they commit.
If an 18-year-old is mature enough to be considered an adult by courts, states, the military and federal government in nearly all circumstances, why not for purchasing a weapon?
Raising age limits is a naive, quick-fix, feel-good approach to a problem that requires a more thoughtful and nuanced response. Gun control advocates ought to focus less on raising age limits and limiting young adults’ rights and more on all the factors that actually led to mass shootings.