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Raising the Age to Buy Semi-automatic Rifles

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To prevent gun violence and keep young people safe, it’s important to explore all potential solutions. It’s especially necessary to look at solutions that can prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands.   

The age of the buyer is one place to start. Already, federal firearms law places restrictions on people under the age of 21. For example, it requires you to be 21 to buy a handgun from a licensed firearm seller. Some state laws take the same approach for private gun sales. Still, challenges to these types of age restrictions are surfacing.  

Some people are asking if any restriction on the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms is okay, but there’s a more pressing question: 

Are we all safer if semi-automatic rifles can’t be purchased by people under the age of 21?” 

Read more to learn about minimum age requirements for firearms and why raising the age from 18 to 21 can help keep young people and communities safe. Then, take action to help protect your community. 

Understanding the History 

People under the age of 21 have used semi-automatic rifles, sometimes referred to as assault weapons, to commit mass shootings. Several of these shooters targeted students. Many of them not only bought their guns legally, they also bought multiple high-capacity detachable magazines, making it easier to reload their guns quickly. Unfortunately, this isn’t new. While these incidents seem to have gotten worse in recent years, the truth is semi-automatic rifles have been misused by people under 21 for decades. For example:  

  • 2012 | Sandy Hook, CT – 26 dead, 2 injured 
  • 2018 | Parkland, FL – 17 dead, 17 injured 
  • 2022 | Buffalo, NY – 10 dead, 3 injured 
  • 2022 | Uvalde, TX – 21 dead, 18 injured 

History paints a very clear picture. Young people between 18 and 20 are using semi-automatic rifles to engage in tragic acts of mass violence. While we can’t explain why this has become their weapon of choice, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that these types of rifles are being misused.  

What is the Minimum Age Requirement to Buy a Firearm? 

It depends. The minimum age to buy a gun is set by federal and state law. To buy a handgun (from a federally licensed firearms dealer) federal law requires the buyer to be at least 21 years old. However, this doesn’t apply if a handgun is bought in a private sale. In other words, it’s possible for an 18-year-old to buy a handgun legally.  

This difference is what is known as a loophole. Some states have closed this loophole through laws prohibiting handgun sales to people under the age of 21. You can read more about loopholes in background checks

Eighteen-year-olds can also buy long guns. This is another loophole in federal law. Long guns include shotguns, rifles (like a hunting rifle), and semi-automatic rifles. Some states have taken steps to close this loophole too.   

Differences in the age requirements present serious problems. For that reason, they deserve serious attention – especially now that we’re seeing young people misuse semi-automatic rifles more often. The following facts show how lives are at risk:  

  • Certain types of guns, especially semi-automatic rifles, are highly lethal.  
  • Semi-automatic rifles have been used in some of our country’s most deadly mass shootings. 
  • The law makes it easier for a young person to buy a semi-automatic rifle than a handgun.

What Does “Raising the Age” Mean? 

“Raising the age” can mean a lot of things. Here, it means raising the age to buy a semi-automatic rifle and high-capacity detachable magazines. More specifically, it means raising the age from 18 to 21. This change can only happen through changes to state or federal law. 

Society recognizes that gun ownership comes with a big responsibility. To be responsible with a gun, however, one also needs a certain level of maturity. Federal law has established that young people under 21 aren’t ready to buy handguns. That leads us to this question: If someone under 21 can’t buy a handgun, why would they be ready to own a semi-automatic rifle? 

Most people know semi-automatic rifles can be highly lethal. Plus, many have heard stories of semi-automatic rifles being used to cause harm. These are especially dangerous when combined with high-capacity magazines. Together, those are strong signs that these types of firearms shouldn’t be readily available. And they shouldn’t be easier to buy than a handgun.  

How Will Raising the Minimum Age Help Prevent Violence? 

Research shows an important part of brain development is not yet complete by the age of 18. The prefrontal cortex, known as the decision-making hub of the brain, does not finish maturing until age 25.  

In other words, people under age 25 are more likely to make impulsive decisions. People who make impulsive decisions probably don’t think things through. This also means they probably don’t make good choices much of the time. And as we pointed out with the examples of mass shootings, when you combine a still-evolving brain with easy access to firearms, the results can be catastrophic. But the closer a person is to age 25, the less risk there is for an impulsive or risky decision. 

This data doesn’t only apply to gun sales. There are age restrictions for other high-risk activities too. Some of these have helped keep young people safe:  

  • When the drinking age was increased from 18 to 21, there were fewer fatal car accidents caused by drunk driving.  
  • Similarly, renting a car1, buying tobacco2, and opening a credit card on your own,3 all require you to be over 21.  

History shows us that a higher age requirement for certain risky activities can minimize harm to young people. We should apply that same logic and understanding to gun ownership.  

Why is 21 a Safer Age to Buy a Gun? 

As you’ve read, 21 is more closely tied to mature brain development or “cognitive maturity,” which allows for more critical thinking. For this reason, raising the minimum age for buying a semi-automatic rifle better aligns with responsible gun ownership. For example, when it comes to mass shootings, research from the Secret Service tells us the average age of people plotting a school shooting is 16 – with the most common age group being 11 through 19.  

On top of this, recent trends show semi-automatic rifles (and high-capacity magazines) are the popular choice for mass shooters. Recently, some of the most devastating mass shootings were committed by young people. Because these types of guns are being misused more often, it makes sense to limit access to them in the name of public safety.   

Raising the minimum age also helps prevent suicide. States that limit handgun sales to people age 21 and older experience an 18% drop in the suicide rate among 18 to 20-year-olds. However, states that let 18-year-olds buy handguns saw an average of 344 more deaths per year.4  

This isn’t surprising since cognitive maturity connects with the ability to make calculated decisions thoughtfully and logically. Suicide can be an impulsive or miscalculated decision. Some mass shooters also turn their guns on themselves. Aligning the purchase of semi-automatic rifles with cognitive development can be key to preventing this type of youth suicide.   

The Second Amendment Doesn’t Include Age Restrictions. Wouldn’t This Violate my Constitutional Rights? 

Not necessarily. In 2008 the United States Supreme Court said the rights created by the Second Amendment are not unlimited. This means that it can be okay to restrict access to firearms. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court said, “There seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms. Of course the right was not unlimited, just as the First Amendment’s right of free speech was not…” 

Because Second Amendment rights are not unlimited, age restrictions on who can have a semi-automatic rifle are okay. And when you fold in research on the impulsiveness of 18- to 20-year-olds, “raising the age” isn’t only reasonable, it’s also necessary.     

What Can I do to Support this Solution? 

Congress has the power to pass laws that raise the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic rifles. While some states have already done this, many have not. Now, the Senate has introduced the Age 21 Act (S. 14). You can take action to convince lawmakers to raise the age through this legislation.