Gun Ownership and the Privileges of Youth

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.

comments

  1. avatar JOE MATAFOME says:

    If your old enough to risk your life for your country, then you should be able to own a handgun. You’re supposed to be an adult at eighteen, but you can’t drink or buy a handgun. I guess it’s ok to die for your country, but please don’t drink a beer or touch a handgun.

    1. avatar Stephen says:

      +100

    2. avatar Javier E says:

      +1. That’s how it SHOULD be.

  2. avatar garynyer says:

    As 20 year old who is morally against drinking, or any kind of recreational drug use, the government does not have the right to tell me or anyone else what they can or cant do with our bodies. Clearly I’m old enough to make a major decision about who the next president is, I’m old enough to operate a major piece of machinery, enlist and be horribly maimed or killed, but god for bide I want to go buy a beer and sit on my porch and enjoy it with my dad

    1. avatar mikeb302000 says:

      but, how old were you when you were old enough to own guns?

      1. avatar garynyer says:

        18 but im still no allowed to purchase a pistol till I’m 21, if the great state of new york thinks I’m responsible enough regardless of age

  3. avatar Brice says:

    I’m a middle aged man with a son that has just come home from basic training. He enlisted early and is attending his senior year of high school. My son is an Eagle Scout, earned on his own. He’s currently an E-3 and will be attending AIT next spring and then hopes to join the ROTC at one of our state colleges.

    In my state I can gift him a handgun at his current age and I already own the gun that will someday be his. I won’t be giving him that gun for some time to come. Although most of the time he seems to be everything I father could ask for, he still makes exceptionally bad decisions from time to time. As our children navigate through the increased freedom that comes with the transition to adulthood, they often failed to think through their actions.

    As a person heavily involved in Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, and other community organizations. I occasionally see kids that could own and carry a firearm right now. For the most part, they just aren’t ready. I don’t know why that is. The personally responsibility just isn’t there. If things were different in the past, I mourn the degradation I see. If we were just more tolerant of stupid decisions and wasted lives, well I don’t know if what we have now is better.

    On another note, my son was appalled at the gun handling he saw at basic training. I work with two reserve officers and one recently retired Air Force Major. Shooting the clearing barrel is a daily activity at many of our bases located in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m not sure that an intensive two month long training regime actually replaces the years of safe firearms handling that our youth should be receiving. THAT I do mourn.

  4. avatar Aharon says:

    “At what age are you responsible enough to own a weapon? A firearm? Or to get more specific, a handgun?”

    I don’t know the answer to that in practical terms. I know adults in their 50s that lack maturity, common-sense, and the right healthy temperament to own a gun. Some teens are way beyond them in deserving ownership. There are many interacting influences and sources that have conspired together or independently which have brought about the transformation from what American society was like in 1960 to modern society today. America does have increasing problems with a society that lacks maturity, responsibility, decency, respect for others, self-reliance, ego self-worship, a poor-me victim mindset, and entitlement.

    BTW, originally only landowners in America could vote. Men achieved the right to vote I believe in the 1890s(?). Women achieved the right to vote in 1920.

  5. avatar mmasse says:

    I see a flaw with this issue. I wholeheartedly agree abolishing any restrictions on the ownership of weapons would be a good thing. Montana has done this and they are safer because of it. This issue is that there are still contract laws in place which would prohibit a 16 year old from purchasing a weapon from any dealer. Most of these laws mandate that you have to be 18 to legally enter in any contract unless you are emancipated. So even with the abolishing of the weapons laws there still remains other systems to restrict contract use.

  6. avatar Ralph says:

    It is Constitutional to restrict the rights of a citizen based on their age?

    The question isn’t whether there can be an age restriction, the question is what should be the age? Eighteen? Twenty-one? Two months and six days? Seven years of age was once considered the “age of reason,” allowing children to be sworn as witnesses in criminal and civil actions. Frankly, seven year olds carrying doesn’t sound like a good idea to me, even if they’re good shots.

    I’m impressed by people who claim that they’re old enough to go to fight for their country, so they should be old enough to buy a gun. I’d be more impressed, except that so many people making that claim aren’t fighting for their country and have no intention of ever doing so. Tsk-tsk, no fair. Anyone who’s going to make the claim should have the balls to actually enlist.

    I don’t know what the right answer might be, but I know that allowing infants to carry is as Kafkaesque an idea as I can imagine. And BTW, the legal definition of “infant” in most states for most purposes is an unemancipated minor under the age of 18.

    1. avatar karlb says:

      In some ways, I very much agree with that argument, but there are all sorts of ways that society treats 18 year-olds as adults other than military service–enter into contracts, marry (a contractual obligation, I know), and so on. So, from a practical standpoint, all the person has to do is change the rhetoric.

      Does not the military still allow 17 year-olds to join if there is parental permission? Does this change the argument? In a state where 16 year old can marry, does this change the answer for anyone?

      1. avatar Ralph says:

        The points you make are super-important. There’s no single definition of “how old is old enough,” and I’m not sure there should be. I’m fine with having different ages of majority for different issues, with complete and unrestricted majority at some point (which is currently 21). I also strongly believe that those who are in service to their country should get “special” benefits, other than being blown apart by a roadside bomb. I can’t figure out why an eighteen year old infantryman can carry a rifle there, but not a pistol here. And when he comes in from a hard day in Indian Country, can’t the guy have a goddam beer?

        1. avatar garynyer says:

          thats what i was trying to say, that those guys should get to do things i dont (although they should change the law about drinking regardless)

    2. avatar Totenglocke says:

      So, according to you, infants are allowed to drive cars?

      1. avatar Ralph says:

        In some states, they can and do, legally. Scary, huh?

    3. avatar Forrest M. says:

      That may be true, but as soon as you turn 18 you sign up for the draft, meaning at any point in time uncle sam can whisk you away to afgahniraqalquedailamistan to meet your fate.

  7. avatar Neil says:

    I had a Winchester 22 rifle and a H&R 22 revolver at age 12. A Winchester 30.30 at 14, and a Mauser 9mm pistol at 15. Living in Utah in the 1950’s. I was never questioned anywhere I went with them, nor was I ever in trouble for misuse.

  8. avatar Brad Kozak says:

    Here’s a thought – since serving in the military is essentially a FEDERAL contract between an individual and the Federal government, pass a law that states that ANYBODY who enlists and serves at least a 4-year hitch is entitled, upon completion of basic training, to qualify to carry a gun. Depending on the State in which they reside, that might mean open carry or concealed carry. But if they are active duty or have served, they can’t be denied the right to carry, based on their age.

    1. avatar karlb says:

      Brad, I am surprised that you would suggest another way for the federal government to usurp state powers.

      1. avatar Ralph says:

        The Federal Constitution, Federal laws and treaties that conform to the Constitution constitute the Supreme Law of the Land. The States have their own constitutions and can set out its own package of rights, can enlarge upon certain rights contained in the Federal Constitution, but cannot reduce them. If the Feds want to include greater rights for soldiers or veterans in its contracts or by statute, it can, and that’s not a derogation of states rights.

        Having said that, I do not believe that it would be a good idea to establish a special Federal gun license or privilege for veterans even though it has a superficial appeal. We already have something similar for law enforcement officers (LEOSA), and while I understand its purpose, I think it was yet another Federal overreach. There’s no reason to make the same mistake twice. While I’m a strong supporter of veterans rights, this proposal goes too far IMO.

      2. avatar Brad Kozak says:

        I would never suggest that the Federal government trample on states rights. However, the right to self-defense is clearly a Federally-protected right. And I think if you serve in the military, you should have all the rights accorded an adult – the right to drink, carry a gun, get married, et cetera. Essentially, all the law would have to do is to state that the minute you graduate from basic training, that you are legally an adult in the eyes of the law. I don’t really see this as an encroachment issue.

  9. avatar Totenglocke says:

    There is absolutely no reason for the handgun age to be 21. It should be 18 all around.

    1. avatar Ralph says:

      I hate to say this, but I think you’re probably correct. Frankly, 21 vs. 18 is a difference without a distinction.

  10. avatar RKflorida says:

    I favor the parents making the decision as to when a child can own a weapon.

    BTW that kid in the picture looks like “Ralphy” from A Christmas Story.

    1. avatar Brad Kozak says:

      Only because it is.

      1. avatar RKflorida says:

        That would explain it then!

  11. avatar Javier E says:

    I have served so has my brother. I believe that education starts at home. I’ve taught my children how to handle scissors, knives, power tools and all manner of other things that can harm them. Guns have also been in the list paint ball and others. But the truth is without the proper respect for the tool even a screwdriver can be dangerous. Parenting takes effort and that is where it begins. We should start gun handling schools 17 years old and up with a parent.

    1. avatar Brad Kozak says:

      Javier, you make a good point. Running with that, in a sane world, gun safety (starting with an Eddie Eagle/NRA-style education program) would be a part of every elementary school curriculum. Gun handling courses would be an elective from middle school through high school, with schools having marksmanship teams just like they have pep squads, cheerleaders, or football teams.

      When you completely demystify and deglamorize guns (or anything, for that matter) it loses it’s power to seduce.

  12. avatar Levi B says:

    The thing it seems like most people don’t understand is that there’s no such thing as a golden age you can name that at that age everybody is a mature, responsible individual. Many, many people are never responsible enough to own a gun. The real trick is knowing if you’re one of those people.

  13. avatar GS650G says:

    The US Government required me to be proficient with a handgun at the tender age of 18. And a fully automatic machine gun as well. I could not buy either of these at that age so I appreciate the opportunity to shoot them both for free. I carried a Beretta 92 FS on my side and a M-16 over the shoulder. If a person’s age determines whether they can handle these things then what the hell was I doing with them until I was old enough to know better?
    I couldn’t buy a beer at the time but die for my country I could.

  14. avatar David says:

    One of my uncles came to visit when I was 16. We decided to go shooting before Thanksgiving dinner. I was very excited because he had brought his concealed carry handgun with him, and I had never fired a 9mm before(only .45ACP). On the way to the range, he handed me the pistol and said “Have a look. It’s not loaded.” I made sure that the pistol was pointed in as safe a direction as possible, removed a full magazine and then pulled the slide to eject the live round from the chamber. I grew up with an Enfield No.4Mk.1 and have always been more safe than many who have handled firearms for longer than I have been alive. Ever since the day with my uncle, I have been extremely careful around handguns.

    The age when someone is mature enough to safely handle a firearm depends on the person. I was probably mature enough at 16 to legally own long and handguns. My sister is 24 and I would not trust her with a water gun(she would fill it with liquor). As there is no way to test maturity without creating an avenue for abuse, setting an age is the only way to do it. As a gun is a gun, 18 for long guns and hand guns seems fair to me.

  15. avatar crosswiredmind says:

    I don’t think a person should be allowed to drive until they’re 21 so I’m probably the wrong person to answer this question.

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