Tighter background checks. Red-flag laws. An assault-weapons ban. Bans on high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Democrats push the same set of policy prescriptions after each horrific mass shooting like Tuesday’s massacre of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Each time, Republicans claim that the problem isn’t guns, take umbrage at infringing upon Americans’ Second Amendment rights and stymie any move to even try to prevent future carnage.
But as we suffer through yet another anguishing episode in our epidemic of gun violence, unique to the US, it’s time for a new idea — one based in evidence and data. Age-based restrictions that keep guns away from young men offer our best hope for addressing a genuine crisis and saving lives.
By the numbers
There is one glaring connection between the Uvalde massacre and the racist shooting of 10 at a Buffalo supermarket on May 14: Both shooters were 18-year-old men. And this isn’t unusual. The shooter who killed 17 at a Florida high school in 2018? A 19-year-old man. The killer who ended nine lives in a Charleston, SC, church in 2015? A 21-year-old man. And it was a 20-year-old man who took 26 lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, only months after a 24-year-old man killed 12 and wounded 58 in Aurora, Colo.
This pattern isn’t limited to mass shootings. While those between the ages of 14 and 24 constituted a little more than 16% of the population between 1980 and 2008, they were responsible for over 48% of the murders. Overall, those 18 to 24 consistently had the highest offending rate over the 28-year period. And the overwhelming majority of those responsible for homicides were male.
The rate of suicide attempts is also highest between ages 14 and 21.
There are good reasons for these statistics: The frontal lobe and other parts of the brain responsible for impulse and emotional control and judgment do not fully mature until roughly age 25 or 26. Additionally, 75% of people who develop psychiatric disorders will do so by 24, while the peak onset of psychotic disorders in men is just under 25.
We address this developmental reality in many ways: Under most circumstances, an American needs to be 21 to purchase or consume alcohol, while the federal minimum age for the sale of tobacco products is also 21. Auto-insurance rates are higher for drivers under 25, because, statistically, they are responsible for more accidents than any other group. Similarly, most car-rental agencies either don’t rent to people under 25 or charge them a premium. Even Airbnb enacted restrictions on rentals for those under 25 to make it harder to throw potentially dangerous and destructive house parties.
But when it comes to guns, while federally licensed firearms dealers can’t sell a handgun to anyone under 21, many states allow handgun purchases at 18 and almost all states allow the purchase of the sort of semiautomatic rifle used in Uvalde at 18.
It’s lunacy to acknowledge that brain development makes it wise to limit potentially dangerous and harmful activities for young adults — while still allowing them to buy deadly weapons. The data also suggest that making it harder for young adults to acquire guns will help keep weapons out of the hands of those most likely to use them to harm themselves or others. A study of offenders incarcerated for crimes committed with guns found that 17% of them would have been prohibited from buying guns if their states raised the minimum age to possess a handgun to 21.
Laws prohibiting possession of firearms by those over 21 might run into constitutional issues, but what about making all gun possession illegal under 21, and requiring those between 21 and 25 to undergo mental-health evaluations before purchasing a firearm? This would avoid placing limitations on older Americans who pose less risk, and it would be more likely to survive legal scrutiny because the evidence is so overwhelming that these restrictions would apply directly to the population most responsible for the carnage routinely shattering families and communities. Most importantly, such laws would have kept both the Uvalde and Buffalo shooters from buying their guns.
The latest from the Texas school shooting
Gun-rights advocates will howl, but we cannot continue to watch people get slaughtered while a clear and obvious solution stares us in the face. No new law will be foolproof, and good enforcement, including accurate and complete databases, is essential. But one thing is certain: If we continue to let young men have guns, we’ll continue to witness gut-wrenching tragedies.
Brian Rosenwald is a political and media historian and author of “Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States.”
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