Politics 101

What are the legal ages for buying guns?

A mass school shooting in Florida has sparked renewed debate over whether and how to reform gun regulations in the United States. Among the issues under discussion now is the age at which it should be legal to purchase a weapon like the one used to kill 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Under federal law, the minimum age to buy a handgun from a licensed dealer is 21. But the age limit drops to 18 if the gun is being purchased from a private, unlicensed seller, which could be a neighbor or someone online, or at gun show. 

For long guns, which includes rifles like AR-15s and shotguns, the minimum age of purchase from a licensed dealer is 18 under the federal law. But there's no minimum age to purchase a long gun from a unlicensed seller. 

"Federal law is a floor rather than a ceiling," said Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. "It sets minimum standards and states can go above that."

But Avery Gardiner, co-president at The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said few states have raised the minimum age above the federal law.

According to data from the Giffords Law Center, Hawaii and Illinois have raised the minimum age of long gun sales from 18 to 21.

Some states, such as Arizona, have extended the age limit for long guns purchased from a licensed dealer to guns purchased from private sellers. 

Though there are a few exceptions, federal law also prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from possessing a handgun, but there's no minimum age to possess a long gun or long gun ammunition.

President Trump has called for raising the legal age to buy a gun to 21, among other gun control measures, in the wake of the school shooting in Florida on Feb. 14 that left 17 people dead. The 19-year-old charged in the shooting legally bought the weapon used, an AR-15 style rifle.

"I will be strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health. 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 Thursday morning, a day after he met with students from the school.

Raising the age of purchase, however, is not a policy proposal supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the powerful gun lobby organization that is one of Trump's biggest supporters.

In a statement Wednesday, NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker noted there are already federal age restrictions for handguns in place. Creating new restrictions for rifles and shotguns, she said, would deprive law abiding adults ages 18 to 20 of their constitutional right to self-protection. 

"The NRA supports efforts to prevent those who are a danger to themselves or others from getting access to firearms," she said. "At the same time, we will continue to oppose gun control measures that only serve to punish law-abiding citizens. These are not mutually exclusive or unachievable goals."

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