The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Which is easier in your state: Buying a rifle or voting?

Rifles for sale at the Guntoberfest gun show in Oaks, Pa., in 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

One might be forgiven for assuming that the order of amendments to the Constitution reflects the country’s shifting priorities since its conception. That the First Amendment protects speech and religion probably accurately reflects that these were seen as more important than, say, the amendment preventing homeowners from having to shelter soldiers — but given that this prohibition is the Third Amendment, maybe not.

It is nonetheless the case that the country got around to instantiating the right to own a firearm (Second Amendment) before it decided that the right of non-Whites to vote (15th Amendment) was important to establish, much less the right of women (19th) or 18-year-olds (26th). Whatever asterisks one believes should apply to the Constitution’s provision of a right to bear arms, if any, it’s clear that this right was in existence well before an 18-year-old Black woman had the right to vote.

That alone reflects on the evolution of the United States. Americans needed guns in 1790 in case the British came back (which, of course, they did). It was about preserving power. But so were the limits on who could vote. The White men who had that power similarly wanted to protect it, and did.

Now, more than 200 years after the Constitution was ratified, we still see tensions between how easy it is for people to avail themselves of these two rights. In Georgia this week, we saw a man reportedly purchase a firearm hours before using it to allegedly kill eight people. At the same time, Republicans in the state legislature are pushing to scale back access to voting in the state, a response to unfounded claims of fraud and the election of President Biden.

That contrast between easy gun access and more difficult access to voting prompted a number of questions about the ease with which Georgians can exercise each of those rights. With that in mind, we pulled data on the ease with which one can buy a firearm or vote in each state to show how that contrast looks around the country.

For this exercise, we focused specifically on the ability to purchase a long gun or rifle, because doing so is generally easier and less limited than buying a handgun. There is a central difference between buying a rifle and voting, of course: The latter necessarily involves the state, while a gun purchase doesn’t. One can buy a rifle from a friend, for example; you can’t vote with a friend. That by itself tends to lower the benchmarks required.

So let’s begin by looking at age limits. In most of the country, both buying a rifle and voting require being at least 18 years old. In some places, though, that’s not the case, according to data from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the federal government. In Minnesota, for example, someone as young as 14 can buy a rifle from another person. In Hawaii, you have to be 21 to buy a rifle. In some states, you can vote in primaries at the age of 17, if you’re going to be 18 by the time of the general election.

Generally, though, these age limits line up. On the map below, each circle represents 21 years. A full purple circle indicates that the age requirement for buying a rifle is 21 years. If the orange circle is more full, the age to vote is higher than the age at which one can buy a rifle. In most cases, it isn’t.

Where things begin to diverge more dramatically is in the necessary delay between seeking to purchase a rifle and seeking to vote. In some states, such as Vermont, you can buy a rifle without a waiting period and you can register to vote on Election Day itself. (Here, we use data from both the Giffords Center and Vote.org, which looked at laws last year.) In other states, there’s either an earlier cutoff for registering to vote or a longer waiting period before one can buy a rifle.

As was the case above, there are a lot of caveats here, such as that the Minnesota and Washington waiting periods apply only to particular types of rifles. But with that caveat aside, in 34 states and D.C., one has to wait longer before voting than before obtaining a rifle.

It’s also the case that far more states require voters to register before voting than require a permit for purchasing a rifle. (The permit data are from Guns To Carry; only North Dakota doesn’t require voters to register.) When it’s time to vote or buy the rifle itself, more states require voters to show some form of ID (according to the National Conference of State Legislatures) than mandate background checks for sales between private parties. (That data, from 2018, comes from FindLaw.)

Again, there are lots of nuances. Several states that require an ID to vote have exceptions for those rules. But the pattern is consistent: Buying a rifle (and specifically a rifle) through a private sale tends to be easier in most places than casting a vote.

Whether this similarly reflects American priorities is left to you to decide.

clarification

This article originally failed to distinguish states which allow same-day registration during early voting. It has been updated.

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