Editorial: 18-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to buy guns
In most cases – signing contracts, entering the military, getting married without parental permission, and living independently – an American is legally an adult by age 18. But a panel of federal appeals judges erred last week in ruling that this should extend to the purchase of handguns as well.
Buying a gun is not like joining a gym. The primary purpose of a handgun is to kill or injure, and a study in Los Angeles County found that 18 to 20 year olds are much more likely to commit acts of violence with a gun than the elderly. We know a lot more about brain maturation than ever before; it is still undergoing major changes in the first years of “adulthood”. A rash decision with a handgun has far more serious consequences than running away to Vegas.
According to the US Department of Justice, “the age at which people most often commit homicides was 18”. And the youngest adults – aged 18 to 20 – ranked first among all age groups for the number of homicides committed with firearms, at 24%.
It can be a tricky question, deciding when a person is an adult. Anyone charged with a crime who turns 18 is charged as an adult. Yet decades ago the legal drinking age was 18; he is now 21 years old. At the end of 2019, federal law pushed the legal age to buy tobacco products at 21 as well.
As a drafting committee, we opposed this decision on tobacco. It seemed to us that people old enough to have a job and buy a house were certainly old enough to make bad decisions about their own health.
In general, the age of majority – 18 – should be the dividing line used to allow young adults to make important decisions about their lives. But it’s not inconsistent to say that no clear line is needed to determine a responsible age for all activities. Given the purpose for which handguns and ammunition were made, and the speed and haste with which a person can make a decision that can end or permanently damage human life, it makes much more sense to impose a minimum age of 21 years for the purchase of a firearm than for a cigar.
The case will go to the U.S. District Court and may well be appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the panel’s split decision is expected to be overturned.
Of course, the right to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol is not enshrined in the US Constitution. But neither is it guaranteed that the right to bear arms comes with a particular age. There are already multiple restrictions on the possession of firearms, including for the mentally ill. An age limit is a smarter way to dramatically reduce gun violence in this country.