At what age are you responsible enough to own a weapon? A firearm? Or to get more specific, a handgun? On Friday, a Federal judge in Northern District of Texas ruled against overturning a law that sets the age limit at 21 or older for buying/owning a handgun. Most states set 21 as the minimum age for handgun purchase, and 18 as the youngest you can be and own a long gun. The NRA, God bless ’em, plans to appeal. But if we’re gonna have law that puts limits on Constitutional right, what limits? What’s reasonable? And how young is too young to own a handgun?
Back in the day, few people thought about guns as inherently dangerous. I remember at my high school (Class of ’75), seeing pickup trucks with gun racks was NOT out of the ordinary. I vaguely remember some kid brought a B-B gun to class for show n’ tell in my second grade class. Nobody got the vapors. Nobody called the ATF. Nobody was shuttled to an “alternative school.” It was, as they say, no big deal. But a lot has changed – attitude-wise – between then and now.
I know this will come as no surprise to any regular reader of TTAG, but I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, in particular, what caused our society to change from one where, as a 6-year-old, my parents let me roam the neighborhood until dusk, and more germane to this question, let kids have guns – as long as they were trained and behaved responsibly.
This kind of change in perspective doesn’t really happen overnight. Had the tragedy at Columbine High School happened back in the 60s, it would have certainly been newsworthy, deemed a tragedy, and disturbed a lot of people, but I doubt seriously if it would have spurred calls for limiting access to guns for people under the age of 21.
No, society had to change before the kind of response we saw after Columbine took place. And that change was a gradual evolution that (I think) saw us go from a society that was founded on personal responsibility to one that essentially says “society is to blame…let’s arrest them instead.”
Think back to Columbine. I don’t recall media pundits blaming the kids for being psycho whack-jobs. I don’t remember any stories blaming their parents for abdicating responsibility to bring their kids up to have a moral compass. Conversely, there were umpteen stories about how our violent society of über-realistic shoot-em-up video games, misogynistic music videos, and the obligatory finger-pointing at “right-wing, redneck gun nuts” were the cause behind the killer’s actions.
But let’s set aside for the nonce, the change in societal “norms.” Let’s look at the law, and how the law evaluates the “age of consent” or more appropriately, the “age of majority,” where a person is legally responsible for their actions, and unable to hide behind their parents.
Frankly, the law is little help here. One of the few disadvantages of having 50 semi-autonomous states in our Union is that we have a patchwork quilt of laws, governing things like the driving age, the drinking age, and the age at which you can legally own a gun. When my grandfather was a lad, his father would send him to the nearest tavern with a quarter and a bucket, with instructions to the bartender to fill it up with beer.
When my dad was a youngster, he would drive my grandmother to and from his gigs. He was all of 10 years old. Back then, nobody needed a license to drive (and she never learned how to). When I was a kid, the drinking age in Louisiana was 18. (And the state of my youth was filled with drive-through liquor establishments that served daiquiris, beer, and frozen margaritas by the go-cup. Louisiana only outlawed open containers when the Feds threatened to pull the State’s Federal matching highway funds. Drinking while driving was thought of as a birthright in the Deep South. Go figure.)
If memory serves, the Feds mandated in 1984, that we set a national drinking age of 21 years old. Technically, in most states you could still drink, but you couldn’t buy booze, nor could you consume it in public. This always struck me as both odd and oddly unfair, since you were allowed to serve your country in the armed forces at 18 (or 17, with your parent’s permission), but couldn’t drink until you were 21.
I’ve always believed if you were old enough to die for your country, you were old enough to make an intelligent decision as to when you might need a drink, say to calm your nerves after being shot at. (And don’t even get me started on the bone-headed policy about prohibiting alcohol in bases we maintain in Muslim countries. I’m not a drinking man, but if I were in the sandbox, I think that’s the time I would WANT to take comfort in a beer or two after a dangerous mission.)
So we have to ask ourselves, “Selves, if 18-year-olds can volunteer to serve – and possibly die for – our country, shouldn’t they be allowed to own a gun?” My answer is a resounding “YES!,” by the way. Your results may vary.
A lot of people apparently think that “21” is some magic number, that somehow signifies instant maturity, and has been a part of our legal code since Adam was in short pants. Not so. Way back in the day, lifespans were a lot shorter than they are today. The Jewish/Hebrew tradition was to celebrate Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah, commensurate with a child’s 13th birthday.
This signified to the community that the 13-year-old was now an adult in good standing with the rest of the tribe. In the Anglican church, we have the sacrament of Confirmation, which basically tells God that from now on, if a kid sins, it’s his own fault and he shouldn’t blame the parents.
So apparently “13” is it from a religious standpoint. But I don’t think any sane person (outside that renegade Mormon(ish) moron, Warren Jeffs) would argue that 13-year-old is an adult, ready for marriage, sex and babies, regardless of their status vis-a-vis puberty. But states are all over the map about the age that two people can marry, as well. (For those of you readying your Mississippi jokes, they ban marriage under the age of 21, without parental consent.)
I’m of two minds on this whole gun age thing. On the one hand, I think ever kid is different. Certainly, if someone 17 or 18 enlists, when they get out of basic, they ought to be able to own a gun, having been given more gun training in a month than most people get in a lifetime. And I know a lot of 18-year-olds – in or out of the military – that are plenty mature to own and use a gun – any gun – responsibly. (Conversely, I know some adults that I wouldn’t trust with either end of a toothpick.)
Which brings us to the Second Amendment. I don’t recall anywhere in the Constitution where they set an age of majority, certainly not in the Bill of Rights. And I doubt the Founding Fathers would have set any such codicil, since they were universally big on self-reliance, and down on excessive laws from a top-down perspective. Still, you could argue that women were not granted the same rights as men (notably, the right to vote) until well into the 20th Century. That’s a fairly large demographic to have some basic rights found wanting.
So I can see the rationale for setting an age to own a gun. After all, if we’re going to set a minimum age for going into the armed services, driving, or marrying, a minimum age for owning a gun doesn’t sound totally unreasonable. On the other hand, there is a vast difference, from a legal perspective anyway, between the Federal government prohibiting something and a State government doing so. It’s all about that pesky (to expansionists) Tenth Amendment:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
The Federal government is (in theory, anyway) severely limited regarding what it can – and cannot – regulate. (Not that this has slowed them down. The expansionist interpretation of the Interstate Commerce clause has enabled an entire Smörgåsbord of laws championed by Progressives.) But States – again, theoretically – have the power to do pretty much what they damn well please, unless it steps on the toes of the Enumerated Powers of the Federal government.
Confused yet? Frankly, I feel your pain. The whole idea is confusing. Frankly, if the NRA is going to challenge this law (and they are) I think they’d stand a better chance, logically, if not legally, by challenging the Constitutionality of it. It is Constitutional to restrict the rights of a citizen based on their age? Now THAT’S a kettle of fish, isn’t it? Because if we accept that as what the Supremes referred to in Heller as a “reasonable restriction,” it’s a slippery slope, indeed.
What’s to prevent the Feds from banning guns for anyone over the age of, say 65? If age is allowed as a reasonable factor in limiting your Constitutional rights, then it opens the door to a whole bunch of what I’d call “legislative overreach.”
Perhaps our best hope is that the Supreme Court will, with one ruling or another, codify some guidelines for what is a “reasonable restriction.” From a Constitutional point of view, this should be the job of the Congress. (But these guys can’t even come up with a budget without abdicating their authority to a committee, so we can see the odds of THAT ever working.)
The highest court in the land has, to date, been understandably unwilling to write laws by de facto judgement. And I agree with that. But there’s one thing the Supremes could do that would clear things up for everybody. What’s that? How about issue a ruling that there shall be NO restrictions on gun ownership, per the Second Amendment.
I can hear Magoo, MikeB, and others in our flock who lean left grinding their teeth and sharpening their pens. But I’m serious about this. Sure, that means that the states would be limited in what they can ban. Okay. There are other ways to skin that cat.
In the case of a Loughner wanna-be, hows about the local law enforcement um…lemme go out on a limb here, and do their jobs? We all know they were unwilling to put Loughner in a mental hospital, for fear of raising the ire of the ACLU or some such group. Or if you don’t like that one, how about the Waco/Fort Hood shooting? There, the Army brass knew the guy was a nutjob, but kept him on the job for fear of offending the Muslim community, and being branded as racial/religious profilers.
I think there are (other) laws, currently on the books, that if enforced, would go a long way towards making the country safer, without screwing with our 2nd Amendment rights. Do I think 6-year-olds should be walking around with a 1911, concealed or open carry? (Of course not. That’s waaaay too much gun for them. Ba-dah-BUM.)
No, of course I don’t. But I think it would be easy to pass laws in each state that would hold parents legally responsible for any mishap that occurs from a minor having possession of a gun. THAT would, by default, keep a lot of guns out of the hands of children.
Which takes us, full circle, back to my original argument, that it’s the change in our country’s basic philosophical foundation of self-reliance and it’s change to blaming society that has screwed us up on this issue (as well as many others). If we can find a way back to taking personal responsibility for our actions (and having parents take responsibility for their kids) a whole lotta laws would be unnecessary, unwelcome, and indefensible.
Perhaps it’s time to start looking at the root cause of why this is an issue. And perhaps it’s time to address the illness, instead of trying to cure the symptoms.