Where do Americans draw lines when it comes to guns and teens?

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Where do Americans draw lines when it comes to guns and teens?
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In the United States, a male under 25 is now the most likely suspect of a mass shooting.

Consider three examples from this year:

  • A 22-year-old wearing body armor and wielding an AR-15 attacked an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in November, killing five and injuring 17.
  • A 19-year-old New York man pleaded guilty Monday to domestic terrorism motivated by hate, which his lawyer said “represents a condemnation of the racist ideology that fueled his horrific actions on May 14.” He will be sentenced to life in prison without parole for opening fire in a Buffalo grocery store, killing 10 Black people and injuring three others.
  • And in Uvalde, Texas, an 18-year-old in May used an assault-style rifle to kill 19 schoolchildren and two teachers before being killed by police after a long standoff.

Of the 30 deadliest mass shootings between 1949 and 2017, only two were carried out by someone younger than 21.

Why We Wrote This

A mass shooter used to be a male in his 30s. Today’s shooters are far younger, in their teens and early 20s. Lawmakers are now looking more deeply at the balance between the age of majority and public safety.

But six of the nine deadliest mass shootings since 2018 were committed by people 21 or younger.

The reasons behind the shift are not conclusive, but experts cite the adolescent mental health crisis, male despair in America, and a loosening of gun laws that allows teenagers in more states to purchase weapons, including long guns. That has prompted a renewed scrutiny on the age of majority: Should it be 18 for everything?

“We know that boys’ impulse control develops later than females’, which is why so much crime is committed by youth,” says criminologist Scott Bonn, author of “Why We Love Serial Killers.” At the same time, he adds, younger people with relatively low stakes in society face “a boiling cauldron of rage and angst. It’s an ideal environment for these individuals to strike out.”

From drinking to voting, from draft age to gun-carry, the extent to which age equals license is still very much in play in America.

Adulthood is set at 18 across most of the world, including in the U.S. The Jewish Talmud declares 18 as the age at which one has enough sound judgment to make financial decisions. 

But there are growing questions regarding the extent to which ancient wisdom holds up in a modern country – particularly one flooded with hundreds of millions of firearms. That has left society pondering new rules for what Dr. Bonn calls “untethered semi-adults.” 

“It seems binary: One day you’re a minor and then you’re an adult,” says Vivian Hamilton, a law professor at William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia. But “what we’re learning is that you don’t just kind of cross over and develop all of the right capacities to be a fully formed and functioning citizen … at once.” 

Like many young men in America, George Roberts grew up with a heady fascination and respect for guns.

For someone stumbling his way into manhood, he says a weapon offered protection and instant respect. Yet Mr. Roberts, who now practices shooting several times a month, waited until he was 25 to buy his first gun. As a younger man, he says, he just wasn’t ready.

“With guns you have to see the good with the bad, and younger people can struggle to tell them apart,” says Mr. Roberts, who is 27 and lives in Savannah.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

George Roberts stops to talk outside the Quickshot gun range in Savannah, Georgia, on Nov. 21, 2022. A gun enthusiast, Mr. Roberts waited until he was 25 years old to buy a gun, guided in part by age limits on gun purchases.

Young people own guns at nearly the same rate as older generations, but are almost twice as likely to report carrying a gun.

Between 2015 and 2019, adolescents carried guns at a rate 41% higher than between 2002 and 2006, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics. 

At the same time, 5,465 murders in the U.S. in 2020 were committed by people ages 13 to 24, with the 20-24 age group peaking at 3,025 murders. Those 25-34 committed 4,364 murders. 

That same year, a gunshot became the main cause of death for young people for the first time in decades. Few of those were the result of mass shootings. Most gun deaths are related to gangs, partner violence, suicide, etc. 

“Twenty-one would be a safer age”

Jason Yoon is well aware of these emerging dynamics. The 24-year-old Bellevue, Washington, resident began work at the Second Amendment Foundation, which advocates for gun rights, before buying a gun.

Mr. Yoon watched his father, an immigrant, struggle with protecting his businesses, which include a small store and motel. After using a CO2 powered gun to chase off a would-be robber, the elder Mr. Yoon purchased a handgun and a shotgun. Jason Yoon followed suit, purchasing a handgun and an AR-15 rifle. They both keep their weapons in a safe to which only they know the password.

Mr. Yoon understands that the Constitution grants gun-owning rights to all Americans. He just thinks 21 would be better policy as a limit.

“Twenty-one would be a safer age,” says Mr. Yoon.

Most states have legal loopholes that allow 18-year-olds to buy or own a handgun, despite a federal prohibition. Over half of states have no limit on who can possess a long gun.

But recent shootings have shifted law. 

After the massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, Florida lawmakers raised the gun-buying age to 21. Prosecutors testified that “18-to-20-year olds are uniquely likely to engage in impulsive, emotional, and risky behaviors that offer immediate or short-term rewards.” They called setting the age at 21 “reasonable.” 

Earlier this year, New York became the seventh state to prohibit sales of semiautomatic rifles to those under 21.

In Texas, the dynamic is different. In 2021, Texas signed a law allowing 18-year-olds to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, but only if they have a court-approved protective order against someone. 

The risks of giving young and untrained people more gun rights is real, lawmakers acknowledged. But “you cannot remove all risk from society,” Texas Rep. Matt Schaefer, a co-author of the bill, told a local news channel last year.

Yet tweaking legal age limits has had profound effects on public safety in the past.

States that raised the drinking age to 21 before it became federal law in 1984 saw a median decline in vehicle crashes of 16%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The BMJ, a medical journal, recently published a study that showed states where the minimum purchase age for a handgun was 18 saw 344 more deaths by suicide, on average, than states with higher age limits. 

Meanwhile, increasing the age limit for at least some forms of gun ownership appears to be popular. The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions found in 2019 that 73% of survey-takers – about 37% of whom were gun owners – said people should be 21 before owning a semiautomatic rifle.

Americans who reach the age of majority “are adults for all purposes,” says William & Mary’s Professor Hamilton, whose work focuses on legal age thresholds. “They have the same legal capacity as adults do. But we’ve increasingly been seeing the proliferation of exceptions to the age of majority – in both directions. That seems to point up that having a single age of majority is not sufficient to meet current social needs. 

“Instead, our lawmakers are increasingly realizing that decision-making capacity is context-specific.” 

One shift is around how different kinds of guns are viewed and used. As hunting has waned, gun manufacturers have increasingly framed their products as cultural markers, often aimed at younger buyers.

“Generally, until the rise of the era of the mass shooter with an AR-style rifle, people weren’t really concerned about 18-year-olds owning long guns,” says Wake Forest University sociologist David Yamane, author of “Concealed Carry Revolution.” “That distinction … that hand guns are really for violence and long guns are for sport – I think that’s broken down in the minds of a lot of people.” 

That disconnect may be part of the debate that pits a constitutional right to bear arms against the perils of relying purely on age as the gateway to rights and responsibilities.

For that reason, “I do think that we might see [a raised age of majority] adopted in some states,” says UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, author of “Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”

“At what age do you have rights?”

Twenty-four-year-old Courtney Parker has deep concerns about that trend.

Ms. Parker grew up around guns in rural North Carolina. “My family’s tradition at Thanksgiving is, we’re going out in the backyard and blow stuff up,” she says. “That’s what we do in the country.” 

But Ms. Parker, who now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and is an outreach coordinator for Gun Owners of America, also watched her father take different approaches to her brothers. Her oldest brother hunted alone in a deer stand at 13. A younger brother wasn’t deemed ready at that age.

“To me, it’s more of a parental understanding of your child as to whether or not they’re ready to handle weapons,” says Ms. Parker.

But “I don’t see in the Constitution where there’s an age limit on being able to defend yourself and your property and your family. … If an 18-year-old can go and fight and bleed and die for their country, I don’t see why it should be [against the law] to own and carry back in the states,” she says. “At what age do you have rights? We don’t ask the government for permission to speak our minds at 18 or 21?”

Indeed, courts have already begun to weigh in on the question.

After a California appeals court found that a ban on semiautomatic sales to those under 21 was unconstitutional, Judge Ryan Nelson wrote, “America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army.”

At the same time, it’s clear to some experts that cultural dynamics – including violent political rhetoric – also has played a role.

In his book “Violence,” James Gilligan, the former chief psychiatrist of the Massachusetts juvenile prison system, wrote that violence is a primary way to ward off shame by making others weep instead. 

“That’s the idea of violence as the means by which you restore or reclaim a damaged sense of masculinity,” says Michael Kimmel, a Stony Brook University sociologist emeritus. “And that’s the profile of so many school shooters. Every one of them had been bullied, beaten up, and targeted for years.”

Those dynamics have left some lawmakers looking for other solutions. 

In October, the New York attorney general published a report citing the “dark web” as a major influence on the Buffalo grocery store shooter. The attorney general is recommending that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act be amended to amp up the responsibility of online platforms to stop violent and unlawful content from being seen.

“At 17 [one’s] son is not old enough to drink legally, but if he goes off to a party, you have to trust that he is going to be able to get home safely, figure out who the designated driver is going to be, and then you have to let him go,” says Professor Kimmel, author of “Guyland.” “And that means you are condoning something that’s illegal. That’s what it means when he’s not old enough to drink but old enough to drive. It’s a bad combination.”

“There are contradictory themes when we grow up, and we learn to navigate our way through by knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em,” says Professor Kimmel. “It’s not just the maturity of the individual, but also the resources that one has at hand.”

Many Americans remember first shooting at young ages. Some 37% of gun owners say they owned a gun before age 18. Ryder air rifles are iconic. Urban high schools in Georgia have basement shooting ranges for 10-meter Olympic air guns.

Many are like Jack, a 21-year-old soldier at Hunter Air Field in Savannah, who declined to give his last name for privacy reasons.

Emerging from Quickshot, a Savannah shooting range, in civilian clothes, Jack says the Army fine-tuned his rifle skills. But shooting downrange is far different, he says, from potentially confronting an assailant on the streets or at his apartment.

So he is mulling concealed carry. “I just don’t want to be in a situation where I might need it, look down, and see that it’s not there,” he says. 

Mr. Roberts, the Savannah gun owner, has no problem raising the age of long-gun ownership to 21, but wonders if that will really address the deeper problems of disturbed and disconnected young men.

Parents and other community members, he says, should listen more closely to teenagers who express interest in guns. If they are interested, he says, show them how to do it responsibly – thus providing not only education, but oversight.

“The best, maybe only, thing to do,” says Mr. Roberts, “is take them under your wing and show them how to do it the right way.”

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