Following the mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada on May 30 laid out a gun control legislation package for his country, including a complete freeze on handgun sales to cap the number of guns in the country, as well as a mandatory buyback of assault weapons. The parliament will likely pass it.
No such proposal is even conceivable in the U.S., the source of those shootings, where gun violence is more than eight times higher than in Canada. Given the historic lack of federal action on gun control, jurisdictions have been forced to take action independently—and one idea gaining steam in recent days is raising the age of ownership of assault rifles to 21 from 18. Lawmakers in New York State, Arkansas, and Utah have all floated the change, based on data that indicates 20% of school shootings are committed by those ages 18 to 20. But experts agree the measure would likely only have a valuable impact if passed in conjunction with other gun control legislation.
After the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul was one of the first lawmakers who voiced wishes to raise the purchase age. “How does an 18-year-old purchase an AR-15 in the state of New York, state of Texas? That person’s not old enough to buy a legal drink,” she said upon introducing the policy as part of a slate of gun laws, which passed Thursday. There’s also some support for the idea in more conservative states: in Arkansas, Republican Governor Asa Hutchison said he was willing to have a “conversation” about the policy, and in Utah, State Senator Derek Kitchen said he would cosponsor a bill to accomplish it. (Meanwhile, three days after the shooting, Texas Senator Ted Cruz spoke at the National Rifle Association’s annual conference about the need for more “armed good guys,” and blamed the massacre on doors.) On the federal level, House Democrats are including the Raise the Age Act as part of a legislative package they hope to pass in early June, though it is unlikely to pass in the Senate.
The gunman in Uvalde legally bought two AR-15-style rifles as soon as he turned 18, the age for buying semiautomatic rifles in the majority of states, including Texas. And the perpetrators of some of the most notorious mass shootings involving AR-15s were all under age 21: the shooter at the supermarket in Buffalo was 18; the Parkland gunman was 19; the Sandy Hook shooter, 20.
“We know that 18- to-20-year-olds have a high risk of using firearms to harm other people. They are disproportionately represented as firearm-homicide perpetrators in our country,” says Kelly Drane, research director at Giffords Law Center, a gun-reform advocacy group. “This is one of many policies that is necessary in our country to help reduce the frequency of these events that we’ve been seeing.”
Rifle regulation and hog hunting
Texas is in the majority when it comes to the minimum age of purchase for long guns. Only six states—California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Vermont, and Washington State—raised the age of ownership to 21; in most cases, after a 2019 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, left 17 dead. It’s a particularly galling standard, given that the age to purchase handguns from federally licensed gun dealers is nationally set at 21. AR-15 rifles also inflict massive damage to human bodies, and are more fatal than handguns, with the capacity to fire 45 rounds a minute—or 400 with a bump stock.
That age distinction has historical roots, says Brennan Gardner Rivas, a historian and researcher whose current book project explores firearms regulation in Texas. Traditionally, handguns—pistols and revolvers—weren’t commonplace, but became more ubiquitous after the Civil War, when production skyrocketed and violence increased. States started regulated them after viewing them as a threat to society. The federal age limit was set at 21 as part of the Gun Control Act of 1968. “The continued possibility of handgun regulation is predicated upon the fact that handguns have always been regulated,” Rivas says. “We live in a legal universe where the older regulation is pertaining to firearms, the more likely it is to be upheld as constitutional.”
Conversely, rifles have not been regulated historically. The thought was that those long guns were more for hunting (and militia) purposes, and that people were allowed to hunt from age 18. When guns, such as the AR-15—weapons of war that could rapid fire—started emerging in the 1960s, the NRA was growing in influence and becoming more purposeful in its messaging that they were simply rifles. “The gun lobby, in its ascendance in post-1960s America, certainly has a lot to do with creating this narrative that assault-type weapons are indistinguishable from other rifles,” Rivas says.
One anomaly in rifle regulation was the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, signed by President Bill Clinton, but which had a sunset provision influenced by the gun lobby. It was allowed to expire by George W. Bush’s administration in 2004. Today, when asked whether they’d support another assault weapons ban, many Republican lawmakers still give hunting as a reason; after the Uvalde shooting, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy said that AR-15s were needed “to kill feral pigs.” Rivas says: “Until we define assault weapons as somehow different from a regular rifle that you would use for hunting deer, we’re going to be stuck with that.”
Insufficient on its own
In Texas, along with his fellow Democratic colleagues, State Senator Roland Gutierrez has called for a special session for gun control legislation. He thinks an assault weapons ban should happen on the federal level, but needs to consider common-sense regulations for his district, which includes Uvalde. “The simplest thing that we could do in Texas would be to change two digits: from 18 to 21,” he says. He says the age-raising idea has even gotten some anecdotal Republican support from within the state. But he knows he’ll get resistance from Abbott, who has presided over multiple gun massacres yet has actually eased gun laws in Texas. “What he’s worried about is his number-one constituent, and that’s the NRA,” Gutierrez says. “He’s worried about the stupid A-plus rating.”
Gutierrez wants to pass the age law but in tandem with other gun reform, such as red flag laws, mandatory waiting periods, and establishing a Texas state agency that provides background checks, all in the hope of making it harder to buy semiautomatic weapons. “Buying an AR-15 in Texas, if you’re 18 years old, is easier than buying baby formula,” he says.
Gun experts and safety advocates agree that the age law is worth implementing—but that it’s only one of many that should be enacted. “Any of these things can be useful, and they’ll all be insufficient,” says Michael Anestis, a clinical psychologist, and executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center. All gun control laws have gaps: Background checks have loopholes, and even the Assault Weapons Ban had to use a cloudy definition of assault weapons, which allowed gunmakers to still make and sell some lightly amended AR-15s during that decade.
Age raising may also come up against legal challenges. This month, a lawsuit successfully determined that California’s age raising was unconstitutional. The judges—appointees of Donald Trump—cited colonial militias as the reason: “America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army,” one wrote. The decision now awaits a final decision, but Esther Sanchez-Gomez, senior litigation attorney at Giffords, says this verdict is likely an outlier. “I really hesitate to say that this is the beginning of the end for minimum-age laws,” she says. “I think it’s quite the opposite. I think this is just a blip.”
Overall, it’s hard to judge the impact such a law will have. “One law is not going to be the end-all be-all,” says Drane, the Giffords research director. But she finds it encouraging that there is at least dialogue this time. “We’ve seen so many mass shootings in this country that have inspired no change,” she says.
For Gutierrez, the urge is there to get it done. He has been driving back and forth for 90 miles from his home to Uvalde every day since the massacre, to console families and push for reasonable gun laws. “Those families deserve better,” he says. “I’m not asking for the moon and stars here. I’m asking for some common sense.”