Changing America

The legal ages for buying a gun in the US

Under the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, long guns can only be sold to individuals 18 years old or older while handguns can be sold only to individuals 21 years old or older.
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Story at a glance

  • The Gun Control Act of 1968 sets federal age restrictions on who can buy a gun. 

  • Many states have made their own adaptations, some enforcing stricter gun laws than federally mandated while some have made it easier to obtain a firearm.

  • Pressure to act on gun control has mounted again after 10 people were killed in a racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y. 

Gun control laws vary around the country, with different age requirements tied to certain types of guns. And it’s a controversial issue receiving renewed national attention after 10 people were killed in a racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y.  

The 18-year-old suspected gunman shot 13 people Saturday, killing 10, at Tops Friendly Market. He used a legally purchased assault-style rifle and illegal magazines banned in New York.  

Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, shotguns and rifles, referred to as long guns, and ammunition for both, can only be sold to individuals 18 years old or older. All firearms that are not shotguns and rifles, referred to as handguns, including their ammunition, can be sold only to individuals 21 years old or older.  

Background checks are also required for any person attempting to buy a firearm from a licensed gun dealer. 

However, there are exceptions when buying or selling from an unlicensed person, like those who sell guns online, at gun shows or elsewhere without a federal dealer’s license. 


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The age limit for handguns if being sold by an unlicensed person drops to 18 years old, while long guns have no age requirement if sold by an unlicensed person. Notably, under current law unlicensed sellers can also legally transfer firearms without needing to run a background check on the interested buyer. 

States have implemented their own age restrictions, according to Giffords Law Center, a gun violence advocacy group.  

In places like Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky and more, individuals only need to be 18 years old in order to be eligible to purchase a handgun — three years younger than the federal limit. 

Alaska has gone as far as lowering the age limit for the possession of a handgun to 16 years old, while Louisiana lowered their minimum age requirement to 17 years old.  

At the same time, Texas, Wyoming, Ohio, New Hampshire, Montana and Maine have no age restrictions when it comes to who can be in possession of a handgun or a long gun.  

However, Giffords Law Center points out that some states have implemented stricter minimum age requirements for the possession of handguns than federal law requires. Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Washington and the District of Columbia impose a minimum age requirement of 21. 

Lawmakers in Washington are feeling the heat to act on gun reform quickly after 38 gun control groups sent a letter to President Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). The groups urged $750 million be appropriated for evidence-led community violence initiatives. 

They also encouraged Congress to pass legislation that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and expand background checks to all gun purchases. 

“Following the most recent racist act of domestic terrorism in Buffalo, New York and the increase in gun violence across the country, we are calling on you to immediately do everything and anything in your power to live up to the promises you make to voters every election year,” the groups wrote in their letter

Mass shootings like what happened in Buffalo have become a tragic trend in the U.S. Last year, eight people were killed in shootings at separate spas in Atlanta, and in 2019 a man shot and killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas. In 2018, a man killed 11 people attending the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. 

Guns were the leading cause of the death among children and adolescents in 2020, the first time in more than a decade. More than 4,300 individuals ages 1 to 19 died across the country as a result of firearms in 2020. 

Biden did attempt to make some progress on gun reform by announcing a ban on unlicensed kits to manufacture guns at home, known as ghost guns. The new rule bans “buy build shoot” kits that people can purchase online or at a physical store without a background check. They can be assembled in as little as 30 minutes. 


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