The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why do we let children buy firearms?

Crosses at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., on May 26 bear the names of victims of the mass shooting there. (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Placeholder while article actions load

Why do we let children buy guns? They can’t purchase alcohol or cigarettes in this country until age 21. But deadly weapons? Under federal law, you need to wait until 21 to get a handgun, although there are easy ways around that restriction. If you’re 18 and want a semiautomatic assault rifle? No problem, except for a handful of states with stricter rules — and those are being challenged in court as unconstitutional.

The back-to-back massacres of the past two weeks underscore the insanity of this approach. In Uvalde, Tex., Salvador Ramos bought two assault rifles and 375 rounds of ammunition just after turning 18 earlier this month. On Tuesday, he opened fire at Robb Elementary School, killing 19 students and two teachers.

Ten days earlier, Payton Gendron, also 18, allegedly killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket with a legally purchased Bushmaster semiautomatic.

Their young ages are sadly typical. In 1999, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, murdered 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. In 2012, Adam Lanza, 20, killed his mother, then headed to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where he fatally shot 20 children and six adults before killing himself. Nineteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018. Dylann Roof was barely 21 when he murdered nine people during a Bible study meeting at a Charleston, S.C., church.

Follow Ruth Marcus's opinionsFollow

Raising the minimum age for gun purchases wouldn’t solve the problem — not in a country with more guns than citizens. In the Sandy Hook shooting, Lanza used guns his mother had bought legally. Harris and Klebold persuaded an older friend to purchase some of the guns they used at Columbine. But in Uvalde, Buffalo and Parkland, the killings were carried out with guns that were legally purchased by the shooters themselves. What rational society allows that?

And although not all mass killers are young — the average age is 33, according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government — the tragic fact is that the perpetrators of school shootings tend to be young, current or former students. A Post database of all school shootings found that the median age of the shooters is 16.

As President Biden put it in his remarks to the nation after Tuesday’s massacre, “The idea that an 18-year-old kid can walk into a gun store and buy two assault weapons is just wrong.” Indeed, even President Donald Trump, in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, called for raising the minimum purchase age to 21. “Raise age to 21 and end sale of Bump Stocks! Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue — I hope!” he tweeted after meeting with Parkland students.

Basic neuroscience supports the notion of limiting the sale of lethal weapons to the young. Prefrontal cortexes, responsible for impulse control, don’t finish developing until the mid-20s. In the meantime, young people are more susceptible to acting on anger and aggression. Crime statistics bear that out. According to the Giffords Law Center, 18-to-20-year-olds account for 4 percent of the U.S. population but 17 percent of known homicide offenders.

There ought to be a law — specifically a federal law. The current system is riddled with loopholes. The rule restricting handgun purchases to those 21 or older applies only to federally licensed dealers. Private sales — remember the gun show loophole? — aren’t covered.

The 18-year-old minimum age for purchases of long guns also applies only to sales by licensed dealers, meaning that buyers even younger can get such weapons in the 17 states that do not set a minimum age for buying long guns.

Senate Democrats — Cory Booker (N.J.), Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) — have proposed a broader federal licensing bill that would impose a minimum age of 21 for all firearms purchases. Don’t hold your breath.

In the aftermath of the Parkland shootings, Florida adopted such a rule. But only five other states — California, Hawaii, Illinois, Vermont and Washington — require that buyers of some or all long guns, including assault weapons, be at least 21.

And those laws, as my colleague Charles Lane recently observed, are under assault in the federal courts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit heard oral arguments in March in the National Rifle Association’s challenge to the Florida law.

Just two weeks ago, a divided panel of the 9th Circuit struck down California’s ban on the sale of semiautomatic rifles to anyone under 21.

The opinion, by Trump appointee Ryan D. Nelson, opened with a paean to Colonial-era youths. “America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army,” he wrote, joined by fellow Trump appointee Kenneth Lee. “Today we reaffirm that our Constitution still protects the right that enabled their sacrifice: the right of young adults to keep and bear arms.”

Seriously? Tell that to the parents of the dead fourth-graders in Uvalde. This isn’t about who could carry muskets back then. It’s about who has access to deadly weaponry today, guns more lethal than the authors of the Second Amendment could ever have imagined.