This week’s mass shooting at a Florida high school, where a lone gunman opened fire on students and staff, killing 17 and injuring 15, has distressingly similar details in the profile of the suspect and his weapon. A 19-year-old former student with a history of disciplinary issues had gotten his hands on an AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle capable of firing highly lethal rounds in rapid succession. And he’d done so completely legally.
Under federal law, and in almost every state, the minimum age for purchasing a long gun from a licensed dealer is 18. This category of firearms encompasses shotguns and rifles, including the assault-style weapons that have become popular in mass shootings. Federal law provides no minimum age for the possession of long guns, and in some states, it’s legal for children younger than 18 to own these weapons as long as they have parental consent.
For handguns, the age limit increases to 21 under federal law. Just two states, Hawaii and Illinois, have laws specifically raising the minimum purchase age for long guns to 21, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
This system gives millions of young Americans the right to buy the deadliest civilian weaponry three years before they can legally drink alcohol. It dates back to the Gun Control Act of 1968. Although civilian firepower has changed dramatically over the past half-century, these distinctions have not.
“Back in the day, you had a lower gun age for rifles because they were often used for hunting,” said Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at the UCLA School of Law. “Young men would have valid reasons for hunting, and they could even have it for self defense, but it was primarily for recreation.”
Back then, many popular civilian rifles were bolt-action, or lever-action. They typically featured lower-capacity magazines, and required the shooter to manually chamber each round, firing more slowly than modern semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15, the now-popular civilian rifle platform modeled off military-issue weapons of the past and present.
In this technological landscape, lawmakers in the 1960s regarded handguns as a much bigger threat in the hands of young people, who can tend to be more erratic and prone to violence.
“This all stems from the idea that handguns were usually weapons of self-defense and criminal misuse, and neither of those two things were seemingly appropriate for most kids.” said Winkler. “So, the idea was that because handguns were thought to be more dangerous than long guns, that they had stricter rules.”
Handguns are still used in the majority of gun violence today. Handguns were involved in about 65 percent of the 11,000 gun homicides recorded by the FBI in 2016. Rifles were used in just 374 of those slayings, though the murder weapon wasn’t specified in 3,077 cases, likely due to inconsistent reporting by law enforcement agencies.
Although shootings involving military-style rifles may be aberrations in the steady stream of daily U.S. gun violence, it’s becoming increasingly clear that they can inflict mass casualties in the wrong hands. Yet state and federal regulations on the purchase of handguns often don’t extend to long guns. For example, gun stores must report to law enforcement any sale of multiple handguns to a single buyer over a five-day period. This requirement doesn’t exist for long guns. Many states also have waiting periods for handgun purchases, which don’t extend to long guns. And state open-carry laws regarding the public display of firearms tend to be far more permissive toward long guns than handguns.
This discrepancy makes some gun violence prevention groups uneasy.
“These highly lethal weapons really have no other purpose other than to kill people fast and efficiently, and to kill as many people as possible,” said Laura Cutilletta, legal director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Handguns may be more typically used in crime, but these types of assault weapons can actually do more damage.”
The firearms industry doesn’t share this concern. Over the past decade, gun groups have rebranded assault-style rifles as “modern sporting rifles” in an attempt to highlight their increasing popularity for recreational shooting. In 2012, there were an estimated 20 million to 30 million of these weapons in civilian hands, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry’s trade group. Gun companies have sold millions each year since then, and they’ve become a significant part of the business.
“The idea of marketing military-style long guns to civilians is something that came about in more recent decades, because the gun industry needed a new way to make money,” said Cutilletta. “People aren’t hunting as much as they did in the past, so this is something they can market to people. It’s marketed as a bit of a toy, something that you might not hunt with, but that you take to the range.”
There have been a number of shootings and failed plots involving people under the age of 21 who have legally purchased their weapons, including both assault-style rifles and shotguns. In 2016, a 19-year-old in Washington state opened fire at a house party with his legally purchased AR-style rifle, killing three people, including his ex-girlfriend, and injuring one.
Winkler said it’s time to institute a uniform gun age nationally for all types of firearms. He also advocates raising the minimum age to buy or possess a firearm without supervision to 25. He noted that people younger than that are responsible for a disproportionate amount of U.S. gun violence, including almost half of all gun homicides.
Winkler suggested following the example of drinking laws, which have led to national incentives encouraging states to implement a 21-year-old limit. But he’s not optimistic about that effort being replicated with firearms, largely because lobbyists from the National Rifle Association and other groups have a stranglehold on the gun debate.
“You don’t have a similar effort in the gun world, and let’s face it, you’re not going to have a serious effort in the gun world,” said Winkler. “The NRA is not interested in new gun control laws.”