By Ashwini Tambe
The Uvalde and Buffalo mass shootings in May 2022 had at least two things in common: The shooters were 18 years old, and they had both legally purchased their own assault rifles.
The shooters’ young age was not an aberration. The average age of school shooters is 18, when tracking incidents since 1966.
The relatively young age of most mass shooters has ignited conversations about the minimum legal age for purchasing firearms.
When it comes to gun laws, there is clearly a legal debate about how to define adulthood. But there is also a complex history of how societies determine adulthood, as I’ve examined in my work on the age of marriage and sexual consent.
Considering someone an adult once they turn 18 is a relatively recent trend, and it’s not clear that it can stand up to public scrutiny as a meaningful threshold for legally purchasing firearms.
A push for age limits
In the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in 2018, the shooter was 19. The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter in Newtown, Conn., was 20 years old. And the shooters at the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., in 1999 were 18 and 17.
Following the Uvalde massacre, Democratic Texas state senators called for an emergency legislative session to raise the minimum age to purchase firearms in the state from from 18 to 21, which Governor Greg Abbott has resisted.
The day after the Buffalo massacre, on May 15, 2022, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul called to raise the age to purchase assault rifles from 18 to 21. The New York State legislature then voted on June 2 to ban anyone under the age of 21 from buying assault weapon.
On June 2, President Joe Biden also called for a ban on assault rifles – or for raising the age when someone is allowed to purchase one.
On the other side of the issue, the National Rifle Association has challenged state laws in Florida and California that restrict people under 21 from buying rifles.
When adulthood begins
Several news outlets, including The Associated Press and The New York Times, called the mass shooters in Buffalo and Uvalde “men” and “gunmen” in their coverage. Some observers argued that these terms were accurate because the age of the shooters was 18.
But there is no single, cohesive legal answer to whether 18-year-olds are actually adults, in every respect.
In most U.S. states, 18 is the legal age of majority – this is the age when people are no longer entitled to parental support, can be emancipated from their parents or foster care, tried as adults for crimes, and enlist for military service. But not all states follow this age standard – in a few states, the age is 19 or 21.
Adulthood wasn’t always set at 18 in the U.S., either. The legal age of adulthood was 21 for several centuries in the U.S., a holdover from colonial rule reflecting a British feudal custom relating to when knighthood was possible.
In the early 1970s, following a congressional push to make the voting age consistent with the age of compulsory enlistment in the army, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. In the following years, most states classified someone as an adult at the age of 18, aligning with the voting age.
This age does not rigidly define adulthood across every legal context, though.
Generally, at 18, a person can participate in activities that require a certain amount of cognitive independence, such as voting, consent to medical treatment and the right to sue someone.
Most states set the age of sexual consent between 16 to 18 years. The federal age of marriage is 18, but most states set a lower age for marriage with parental consent. Even in other parts of the globe, as I note in my book about the transnational history of marriage laws, parental consent determines the legal age standards for marriage.
A higher limit
On the other hand, some activities that can directly harm others and oneself have a higher age threshold.
The federal minimum legal drinking age is 21 because, after being dropped to 18 in the 1970s, an increase in drunken driving fatalities pushed states to raise it again to age 21 in the 1980s.
Government studies showed that states with the minimum drinking age of 18 had higher motor vehicle fatalities.
Drivers below the age of 25 also find it either difficult or more expensive to rent a car, given the higher risks of accidents for the car, the driver and others on the road.
The age threshold is also higher for activities involving financial risk.
For example, someone under the age of 21 needs a co-signer to get a credit card in their own name because of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act, passed in 2009.
Researchers who study adolescent brain development argue that different types of maturity develop along distinct timelines. They offer nuanced distinctions between the ability to reason in a systematic way, which typically happens around age 16, and decision-making that involves emotion and risk assessment. This can take many more years to develop.
Such cognitive growth in fact continues until around age 25.
For these reasons, some legal scholars argue strongly against an absolute single standard for adulthood – one that holds across all activities.
The series of recent mass shootings by teenagers is challenging legal standards about when someone is an adult and can legally purchase firearms. Emotional maturity – the ability to recognize and process one’s fear, to control impulses – should ideally be a facet of gun ownership, if civilians are to have access to guns at all. The decision to pull a trigger requires exactly the kind of forethought that neuroscientists argue develops slowly.
In most legal contexts, activities that can put others at risk are not permissible at age 18. Adult status is actually granted in phases, depending on the activities in question. There is a strong case to be made on both historical and scientific grounds that 18-year-olds should not be allowed to purchase firearms.
Ashwini Tambe is Professor and Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Editorial Director of Feminist Studies at George Washington University.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
Back in the 1970’s each male adult aged 18 was required to register for Selective Service Act. Vote & Fight in a war at age 18, should be able to purchase a gun thru the protocols of legislation for wait periods, etc.. The rule has always been, old enough to die for this country, old enough to vote & drink. Relatively recent drinking age laws made 21 the new age, yet 18 remains the voting age.
Just talk to Sheriff Staly, I’m sure he can fill you in on the children that are committing the crimes around Flagler County. Heck I don’t even have to talk to Staly, the headlines and articles have all the juicy details of the Biden crime wave. Eventually this all comes down to unfit parents & their children. At a certain point the schools become the front lines for crime. Felons having children, bringing them along in the same path of criminality they chose in life. Until that’s fixed, asking the rest of us to go thru these additional hoops/tests of worthiness is what makes no sense. A criminal will not care to abide by existing or new legislation. Any of us are +/- moments away from coinciding with the criminals, just like the bad driving motorist that causes an accident. This world has no padded walls or guarantees. For every school mass shooting I can counter that with the crimes that are just as lethal. That usually involves bullying, illegal drugs, some type of interaction between 2 parties where one cheated the other out of money. The old saying goes, “Money is the root of all evil”.
Selective service registration did not take place after Nixon abolished the draft until 1980, when it resumed. It is still in effect.
I have no trouble making the legal age to buy an assault weapon 21. Yet liberals lobby to give 16 year-olds the right to vote.
The utter insanity of the left.
@m. . . this article is about “killing” NOT “voting”. . . except as a desperate FOX talking point to detract and misdirect!
The “utter insanity” is about the horrific corrupt Republicans in Congress lining their pockets with $$$$ from the NRA and REFUSING to do ANYTHING to STOP the mass murder and daily gun violence in this country!!!
Let’s change the age to join the military to 21 also. Why should a 18 year old hold the same rifle rifle you want a ban on. It’s ok to have these same CHILDREN get killed in some foreign country holding this weapon?
I am old enough to remember when the democrat party wanted to lower the voting age to 16. Are these CHILDREN’S mind s developed enough to make a informed decision for what direction this country goes. Most 16 year old kids could not tell you the three branches of government.
Trailer Bob says
I do not believe that anyone under the age of 21 should carry a gun. The mind isn’t yet developed in many areas. They are not so god at making decisions, many are “looking for a fight” exactly due to their lack of control skills which have not yet matured.
Veterans, of course, could be exceptions.
I AM A RESPONSIBLE owner of rifles and pistols, and I am sick of seeing these tragedies unfold over and over.
Nothing will change until there is a change.
Jack Howell says
The common response to preventing an 18-year-old from purchasing an automatic rifle (AR-15/AK-47) is that if they can serve their country as a member of the armed forces then they should be allowed to purchase these types of weapons! That is a point. My counter to this position is to let them join the armed forces and get the proper training in handling these weapons while serving their country. But, keep in mind, that not all 18-year-olds are mentally qualified to serve in the armed forces. They are screened at the Military Entrance Personnel Center and if during the screening process it is determined that they are not mentally fit for duty, they are subsequently denied entry into the military.
Personally, I can’t see the need for having these types of weapons. They are designed for one purpose and it is not hunting animals! I don’t have a problem if gun collectors purchase these weapons; however, these collectors should be on a federal registration list. The list would be similar to what is required for gun sellers.
The intelligent response to your rant is that guns are no more dangerous than misinformation. Some would contend guns are less dangerous than a writer with an agenda. The pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword.
To the point, no one is talking about “automatic rifles”, few (if any) are denied entry to military service for their inclination to own or use weapons as a sign of being unfit for duty, most murders (by far) in this country are committed with handguns and 99% of legal rifle usage is for target practice – with no recorded incidents of paper targets dying. Misnamed “assault rifles” can’t even be defined by gun experts.
The rifles scorned by most liberals aren’t “automatic”, they’re “semi-automatic”. No one has been killed in the US by an automatic rifle since the time of Bonny and Clyde. I could show you two rifles from the same company, in the same caliber, both semi-automatic and you would call one a hunting rifle and the other an death weapon BECAUSE OF THE WAY THEY LOOK. That’s not very scientific and impossible to legislate.
If you recall, many of the mass shootings and all the presidential assassinations in the past 100 years have been committed by ex-members of the military – so much for your mentally-fit evaluation.
I won’t drag this out with statistics regarding handgun deaths versus rifle-inflicted deaths. The FBI does an adequate job of that. You want to stop the deaths of our youth by gunfire? Let parents in hellholes like Chicago spank the kids and fine the parents who refuse to be held responsible. ALL of those kids who killed others in school were emotionally disturbed and their parents either couldn’t or wouldn’t take the time to prevent the tragedies they became.
Our Constitution protects gun ownership because it protects us from our feckless leaders in DC. You know, the ones who won’t build a wall on our Southern border to keep out criminals and fentanyl but will put up a fence around the Capitol to protect themselves during a State of the Union speech and are surrounded by armed body guards.
I also won’t explain to someone who plays so loosely with the truth why paper targets can’t die.
Ray W. says
Dictionary.com defines “feckless” as: lacking initiative or strength of character; irresponsible.
Since the only politicians in D.C. who fit the definition of “feckless” are the radical so-called conservatives who list an “R” on their resume’ (many true conservatives who have left the Republican Party argue that today’s version of republican politician is not conservative), are you suggesting that Americans need guns to protect themselves from fringe Republicans who behave in a feckless manner? That our founding fathers knew that politicians who fit today’s mold of radical Republicanism would eventually rise to power and that this new version of radical Republicans would be inherently feckless, and that the members of that first Congress adopted to Bill of Rights to protect us all from them? Or was it that the founding fathers of that first Congress never intended gun ownership to be used to protect us all from politicians; rather, they intended to right to possess firearms to protect us all from feckless insurrectionists? Or did they write it to protect us from foreign armies? Or from criminals?
You have a valid argument, but validity alone seldom wins an argument. You greatly weakened your argument by limiting your comment to politicians. There can be multiple reasons that adequately explain why the members of that first Congress saw fit to write the Second Amendment the way they did, and feckless politicians may not have been one of those reasons.
Timothy Patrick Welch says
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Any ban should apply equally to all persons public and private.
The two most active militia organisations currently in the U.S. are the Oathkeepers and the Proud Boys. Are you suggesting they be armed with AR-15s?
@jb. . . The horrific Oathkeepers and Proudboys are “NOT” official militias!! They are nothing short of violent, criminal “gang members”!!!
Again, the second amendment says: A “WELL REGULATED” Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
The only entity that can legally regulate anything is a “government” entity! A “well regulated militia” (using the words of 1791) might easily translate into the our “regulated” local police and sheriff’s deputies.
Ray W. says
As I have commented before, I used to share ideas and debate political ideas with a fellow Assistant Public Defender. He was and probably still is an ardent partisan Republican. While debating the concept of a militia, I told him I would look up the dictionary definition of “militia”, if there was one, dating from the Revolutionary War era. I found what was described as the first American published dictionary, available to me in PDF format, dating from 1786. I shared the definition with my friend. Yes, militia was defined at or near the time of the founding of our nation as a group of citizens who could be called up by the government. One example at that time was the calling of a militia by the government to quell Shays Rebellion.
An argument can be made that the original intent of our founding fathers was that individuals could not form their own militias and could not belong to an organization calling itself a militia that was not under the control and direction of the government.
Thank you so much Ray W! So much misinformation our there!
By the description of militia from your fine research, it appears the “National Guard” would likely best fit the modern definition of of a “well REGULATED militia”.
Hopefully others will be educated by your factual research.
A legal age to buy an assault weapon doesn’t make sense since you can now make one… and one which is fully automatic.
Ask Staly… he probably knows.
The horror, the horror.
Looks like we have at least two people commenting here who watch the same programs on FOX where apparently they have been taught to talk about a “FAILED” attempt by Democrats to lower the voting age as a way to “DISTRACT” from the “Republicans” who REFUSE to do ANYTHING to STOP the massive gun violence in our country.
What in the hell does “voting” age have to do with the age anyone should own a weapon of mass destruction? Next we’ll be hearing that asinine statement about how airplanes weren’t banned after 9/11! NO. . . but, “regulations” by the TSA most certainly clamped down hard on exactly who can get near a departure gate and on a plane. . . and even who can park where at an airport!!! Why in the hell can’t we do the same thing with guns?? Oh yeah, I guess there was no graft being paid by lobbyists to stop the TSA regulations!
BAN ALL WEAPONS of WAR in civilians hands TODAY!
Implement and Enforce Universal Background Checking on “ALL” Gun Sales TODAY!
Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. Here is a story from 2012 from a country that was one of the richest in the world only 11 years prior. Their reason to take all guns was the same as yours https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-18288430
Let’s see how it worked out for them some years later. Say 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-animals/police-believe-thieves-steal-venezuela-zoo-animals-to-eat-them-idUSKCN1AW2NN
At this point, it’s really not worth arguing about it. Economic and social problems are destroying this country in the same way. The Jacksonville Zoo may want to look at adding more security.
OH, one more question, how many people were killed in the January 6 riots, just wondering what number NPR told you.
Off hand, from what I gather about three or four… one of which was one of the “faithful.” I think two capital security officers died directly as a result of their injuries that day, within a 48 hour period… the other(s) later. Gleaned from various sources over the past few months, NPR not one of them. You’ll have to check for yourself.
As for Venezuela? That’s a long and tortured story (compounded by $$$ over oil reserves by the way). I don’t think it’s worth making such a specious comparison just to support gun rights here in the US.
But at the risk of sounding anti-immigrant, I will say that the Venezualans seem adept at spotting the “creeping threat of socialism,” but not the immediate one of autocratic dictatorships… at least that’s what I concluded from the FL 2019 election results. Just my opinion.
@j. . . I truly hope you get the counseling you so obviously need!
Michael Cocchiola says
One Republican witness at the House hearing proposes to arm every American since law enforcement cannot or will not protect you. We already have enough guns, so I guess why not arm school children? After all, the 2nd amendment applies equally to all citizens.
We could train and arm kids 10 years and up. They can handle a 5-lb AR-15. We could call them the American Armed Youth Corp. Send them to basic training and two weeks of military camp every summer. They can wear a black uniform and a colorful armband with a red “R” and a rattlesnake coiled around the Statue of Liberty. When they get to school they are issued a weapon, body armour and a communication device.
Later on we get them to listen in on their parents conversations and report any suspicious behavior under new red flag laws. And as they get older, they can patrol city streets with unlimited law enforcement authority.
Wait! Have I leaked the Republican plan to curb mass shootings and crime?
The Geode says
The people committing all these “gun crimes” can give two shits about your background checks, age restrictions, or age restrictions. They can get a gun anytime they want. They don’t come from gun stores or gun shows or any other “legal” means that law-abiding citizens have to abide by. I wonder why WHITE people are so “up in arms” (pun intended). They own 80% of all guns with only 40% owning guns. That 40% got a SHIT-LOAD of guns (and willing to sell them). I hear all this blah, blah, blah while blacks get slaughtered every day by these “guns” that seem to discriminately affect 12% of the population (perpetrated by 3-4% of the 12%) on a daily basis but don’t become an issue until the problem leaks outside the box…
A Concerned Observer says
Sorry Ashwini Tambe , get your facts straight before you author misinformation designed to inflame the public. An AR 15 IS NOT an assault weapon. To be an assault rifle, it MUST be capable of fully automatic fire; a machine gun. AR 15 is an semi-automatic rifle, chambered for the 5.56 mm or .223 rifle round. AR stands for the manufacturer, ArmaLite, model 15 and NOT Assault Rifle. To purchase or own a fully automatic rifle (M-16), the applicant must be 21, have no felony or violent misdemeanor convictions and no dishonorable military discharge, pass an extensive background investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and purchase a $200.00 Class-3 tax stamp for each firearm.
The commenter is misinformed. The AR-15 was among the weapons banned in the assault-weapon ban that expired in 1994. The automatic v. Semiautomatic designation is not the defining factor. NRA talking points do not define what an assault weapon is.
Enacted 1994, allowed to expire by elected Republican Party criminals 2004.
@ACO Whoa, I was under the impression that fully automatic weapons were NOT legal for sale in the US… and that that was in fact why “bump stocks” and other mods were so controversial.
There’s no justifiable reason for a civilian to have such (fully automatic) weaponry in my opinion.
Not that it matters anymore from what I gather.