For most purposes — signing contracts, entering the military, marrying without parental permission and living independently — an American is legally an adult at age 18. But a panel of federal appellate judges erred last week in deciding that this also should extend to the purchase of handguns.
Buying a gun isn’t like signing up for a gym membership. A handgun’s main purpose is to kill or injure, and a study in Los Angeles County found that 18- to 20-year-olds are far more likely to commit violent acts with a firearm than older people. We know much more about the maturing brain than we used to; it is still undergoing major change in the first years of “adulthood.” A rash decision with a handgun carries far more serious consequences than eloping to Vegas.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, “the age at which people most frequently commit homicide was 18.” And the youngest adults — ages 18 through 20 — ranked first among all age groups for the number of homicides committed with guns, at 24%.
It can be a tricky matter, this business of deciding when a person is an adult. Anyone charged with a crime who is 18 is charged as an adult. Yet, decades ago, the legal drinking age was 18; now it’s 21. At the end of 2019, federal legislation pushed the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21 as well.
As an editorial board, we opposed that move on tobacco. It seemed to us that people old enough to hold down 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 in allowing young adults to make momentous decisions about their lives. But it’s not inconsistent to say that no single bright line is needed to determine a responsible age for all activities. Given the purpose for which handguns and ammunition were made, and how quickly and rashly a person can make a decision that can end or forever damage a human life, it makes a lot more sense to impose a minimum age of 21 for a firearm purchase than for a cigar.
The case will be returned to U.S. District Court, and might well be appealed to the full 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the panel’s split decision should be reversed.
True, the right to puff on cigarettes or drink alcohol is not written into the U.S. Constitution. But neither is a guarantee that the right to bear arms goes with being a particular age. There already are multiple restrictions on gun possession, including for the mentally ill. An age restriction is one more sensible way to cut back dramatically on gun violence in this country.
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