In February 2018, days after 17 people were killed by a mass shooter in Parkland, Florida, then-President Donald Trump shared a rare moment of agreement with liberal lawmakers around a single, specific policy proposal: raising the national minimum age to purchase rifles from 18 to 21.
“You have a case right now where somebody can buy a handgun at 21,” Trump said in a February 2018 televised meeting with lawmakers. “But you can buy the kind of weapon used in the school shooting at 18.”
The 19-year-old shooter at the Florida high school had used an AK-15 variant that he had legally purchased at a local gun store to kill 14 students and three educators at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.
Brain science appears to give credence to the idea that barring teens from gun ownership could reduce shootings.
Momentum behind changing the minimum age for rifle and assault-style weapon purchases fizzled amid an National Rifle Association lobbying effort. The consequences, arguably, have been deadly.
Since the Parkland shooting, 54 people have been gunned down in three of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history by shooters using rifles they had legally purchased before turning 21.
- The 21-year-old man who killed 23 people at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart in 2019 used a GP WASR-10 semi-automatic rifle he had purchased legally online while he was 20 years old, according to federal prosecutors.
- The 18-year-old man who killed 10 people in a white supremacist attack in Buffalo, New York, this month purchased the AR-15-style weapon he used in the massacre legally from a local gun store.
- The 18-year-old man accused of killing 21 people at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday reportedly purchased guns including an AR-15-style rifle used in the shooting from a local gun store for his birthday.
“It was the first thing that he did on his 18th birthday,” Democratic Texas State Sen. Roland Gutierrez said of the shooter’s purchases. “It’s astounding to me.”
States act where feds fear to tread
After the Uvalde shooting, gun control policy is again in the spotlight, but few seem to be discussing one of the simplest reforms available: raising the age limit to buy a gun.
In the absence of national action on gun control reform, Florida enacted its own law changing the minimum age for gun purchases to 21. It is now one of five states — including California, Illinois, Hawaii and Vermont — where the minimum age to purchase any firearm is 21, according to research by Everytown for Gun Safety.
Washington state established a minimum age of 21 for “semiautomatic assault rifles” but not necessarily all long guns. Other states are mulling changes: In New York, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul said on Wednesday that she planned to work with lawmakers in the state on increasing the minimum age for certain long guns.
A state-by-state patchwork approach is better than nothing, advocates say, but is obviously weaker than a national measure to raise the buying age for firearms. “You can’t put borders up, speaking of borders, to a neighboring state where you can buy this damn stuff legally,” Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in 2019 after a 19-year-old shooter killed three people at a festival using a semiautomatic AK-47-style rifle he had purchased legally in Nevada.
“You’re afraid of the NRA, right?”
Trump first signaled his interest in raising the minimum age for assault rifle purchases the week after the Parkland shooting.
At his televised meeting with members of Congress on Feb. 28, 2018, Trump repeatedly pressed lawmakers about the disparities between the minimum ages for handgun and rifle purchases.
“In your bill, what are you doing about the 18 to 21?” Trump asked Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, D-Pa., who were preparing to introduce compromise gun safety legislation.
Toomey explained that the bill did not propose any change to the minimum age.
“I’m the one bringing it up,” Trump replied. “And a lot of people don’t even want to bring it up because they’re afraid to bring it up. But you can’t buy a handgun at 18, 19 or 20. You have to wait until you’re 21. But you can buy the gun, the weapon used in this horrible shooting, at 18.”
“It’s a no-brainer,” Manchin interjected.
“It doesn’t make sense that I have to wait until I’m 21 to get a handgun, but I can get this weapon at 18. I don’t know,” Trump continued. “So I was just curious as to what you did in your bill.”
“We didn’t address it, Mr. President,” Toomey replied.
“You know why?” Trump said to Toomey, “Because you’re afraid of the NRA, right?” There was laughter in the room.
“My reservation about it, frankly, is that the vast majority of 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds in Pennsylvania who have a rifle or a shotgun, they’re not a threat to anyone,” Toomey replied. “They’re law-abiding citizens. They have that because they want to use it for hunting or target shooting, and to deny them their Second Amendment right is not to going to make anyone safe.”
Toomey has received nearly $1.5 million in campaign donations from the NRA in the course of his political career, ranking him 14th among all senators, according to calculations by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
The day after the televised meeting, Trump held an Oval Office meeting with officials from the National Rifle Association and appeared to back away from his support for the measure.
NRA lobbyist Chris Cox tweeted on March 1, 2018, that he had had a “great meeting tonight” with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. “We all want safe schools, mental health reform and to keep guns away from dangerous people. POTUS & VPOTUS support the Second Amendment, support strong due process and don’t want gun control.”
The Manchin-Toomey bill died, as did a narrowly crafted measure backed by then-Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the Age 21 Act, which would have raised age limits for certain firearms purchases. Ultimately, the only action senators took in response to the Parkland shooting was adopting a resolution by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) condemning the act and “expressing support and prayers for all those impacted by that tragedy.”
Toomey did not address questions for this report about his 2018 comment that raising the minimum age for rifle purchases would not make anyone safe. Asked about the age minimum by CNN anchor Jake Tapper on Wednesday, Toomey said, “I hear that argument, although on the other hand, an 18-year-old is considered responsible enough to lose his or her life in defense of this country, responsible enough to cast a vote that decides the future of the country.”
“Not a coincidence”
Matt Bennett, executive vice president of the policy group Third Way, said the reason for the age disparity is that handguns were long considered more dangerous in the hands of young people than rifles.
It remains true that handguns account for the vast majority of gun crimes, including murder. “But rifles are no longer simply the hunting firearms of 30 years ago,” Bennett said. “Now, assault rifles are involved in almost every mass shooting. And people under 21 are often the perpetrators.”
Research has shown that teenagers are more likely to engage in violent and criminal activity. Scientists have found that teenagers exhibit incomplete development mechanisms in the brain that modulate impulsive behavior. Parts of the brain continue to mature into the mid-20s, including those that are involved in impulse control and decision-making.
Moreover, perpetrators of mass shootings tend to commit their acts at “crucial life transitions stages” either in their youth or in middle age, according to Eric Madfis, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Washington Tacoma and the author of “How to Stop School Rampage Killing.”
“It’s not a coincidence that a number of shootings have happened both at high schools and colleges, sort of at the end of a student’s time there, when they’re about to leave and transition to something else,” he said.
In 12 of the 15 deadliest U.S. shootings from 2008 to 2018, all firearms used were acquired legally — a finding that “suggests that the current criteria for legal purchase of firearms may be insufficient,” according to a 2019 article in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice co-authored by Madfis.
“There have been a number of cases where people who are 18 bought the gun legally,” Madfis told Grid. “And if they weren’t able to do that, that would help.”
A 2019 article in the journal Violence and Gender found that mass shooters under age 25 are “more likely to attack at schools” than older attackers and “significantly more likely to have admitted copying or being inspired by previous attackers.”
A “bipartisan fix”
“If the law says someone under the age of 21 is too young to purchase a handgun, [then] it ought to say they’re too young to purchase an assault weapon,” Flake said in a statement in 2018, when he introduced the Age 21 Act. “This bipartisan fix is long overdue, and would’ve made as much sense before the tragedy in Parkland as it does after. I hope we can work together to get this passed and signed into law without delay.”
“In the wake of this latest tragedy, I hope my Republican colleagues can at least support this small commonsense measure that would establish parity with regard to gun purchasing age,” Feinstein said in a statement earlier this month.
The legislation has not been co-sponsored by any other Republican senators since Flake in 2018. Meanwhile, Democrats have attempted to raise the age limit question in the wake of the Uvalde horror.
“It’s fucking nuts to do nothing about this,” Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz. — whose wife, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was gravely wounded in a 2011 Tucson shooting that killed six people — told reporters on Wednesday.
“Teenagers shouldn’t be able to buy weapons of war anywhere in this country,” Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., tweeted.
A day after the Uvalde shooting, Trump released a statement expressing condolences “to all who are suffering so gravely” following the mass killing. He did not endorse or even mention his earlier proposal to raise age limits for rifle purchases, or other gun control measures he’s supported in the past, from boosting background checks to “red flag” laws. The ex-president is expected to speak at the NRA’s convention in Texas this week. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
An earlier version of this article misstated the total number of people killed in three of the deadliest U.S. mass shootings. This version has been updated.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.