One of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s proposals to address the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting is to raise from 18 to 21 the minimum age for buying a long gun in Florida (an age restriction that already exists for handguns). Ross Douthat of the New York Times has offered a more nuanced proposal for staggering the age at which different guns could be purchased (“Let 18-year-olds own hunting rifles. Make revolvers available at 21. Semiautomatic pistols, at 25. And semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 could be sold to 30-year-olds but no one younger.”) The goal of keeping guns out of the hands of unstable young men is a worthy one, but Scott’s proposal goes further than needed to address it. Here’s how and why.
First, there is no empirical reason whatsoever to deny 18-to-20-year-old women from buying guns. There’s hardly any fact more powerfully established by social science data than the fact that men make up the overwhelming preponderance of violent criminals, including gun crimes. As Sean Davis has noted, out of 153 mass shootings since 1966, 148 were carried out by males (whose average age was actually 33). I realize that we have something of an allergy to drawing gender distinctions these days – or even admitting that genders exist – but the evidence on this count is extremely one-sided and well-settled.
Second, frankly, we have something of a schizophrenic view of who is an adult in this country. You can drive at 16, marry and have children around 18 in most places, vote and sit on a jury in judgment of your peers at 18, be forced to register for the military draft at 18, be tried as an adult for violent crimes typically at 18, but drink only at 21 and stay on your parents’ health insurance until 26. Many of the same people fighting to raise the age limit for owning guns are arguing for more influence over national gun policy for people under 18.
Specifically, you can be a cop in Florida before age 21 – the minimum age to become a state trooper or a Miami cop or a cadet in the Broward County Sheriff’s Department, for example, is age 19. You can also join the military at age 17. There is no reason why people we train, arm, and trust to carry guns in service of the country should be barred from buying them at home. Florida legislators should, at a minimum, exempt members of the military and full-time law enforcement officers from any age limit.
Third, all the way back to the Founding Fathers, Americans have seen gun ownership not just as part of the process of participating in the common defense of the country (the much-cited militia tradition), but also as part of the process of raising the kind of young people (young men in particular) who will be responsible for that task in the future. That’s why Congress in the Militia Acts of 1792, a year after passage of the Second Amendment, required the following as part of a larger program for enrolling all eligible military-age men in the militia:
[E]ach and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective states, resident therein, who is or shall be of the age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years … shall…provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch with a box therein to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball: or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder…
That same tradition informed the formation of the NRA, founded by Union Army veterans who had been alarmed at the superior marksmanship of Confederate soldiers and wanted to spread the practice of owning and training with rifles in the North and Midwest. And even if you look at the demographics of our all-volunteer military today, while we don’t seem to have data on what percentage hail from gun-owning households, the gun-owning regions of the country (especially the South) are overrepresented in military volunteers.
As a result, we should be cautious about overgeneralizing to discourage young men of prime military age from buying guns, just as we should recognize that they also represent the demographic most responsible for gun violence. Fortunately, there’s a better way.
Instead of an outright ban, men under 21 could be required to provide either a good-character reference from someone who is not a blood relative, or – if the rule is to be more leniently applied – have a custodial parent appear in person when the gun is purchased and sign for responsible oversight of it. This would be no great burden on responsible young men who could get a reference from a coach, a pastor, a teacher, or someone else in their life. But shifting the burden to the young male gun buyer to provide some proof that some adult thinks them fit to own a firearm would help screen out one specific sort of person who causes school shootings: the obviously emotionally disturbed loner who has not yet done anything to get a criminal record, but is clearly seen by those around him as not all right.
School shootings, like terrorist attacks, are extremely rare events, but also uniquely horrifying and destructive to society. (Of course, they are unlike terrorism in having no overarching ideology, international or state support, etc. But you get my point.) As a result, we should seek to target our responses to reduce them without a wholesale burden on the civil liberties of innocent citizens. More than 99% of all guns in the United States are never used in an act of violence against another human being. A focused and targeted gun policy should recognize that and seek to take aim at the people most likely to be the dangerous exceptions.