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Should There Be An Age Limit For Owning A Gun?

Last week represented the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. In the wake of this tragedy, the Florida state legislature passed a $400 million firearm and school safety bill, despite strong opposition by the National Rifle Association. Among the measures aimed at reducing future school shootings, the bill raised the minimum age for purchase of long guns to 21, a restriction that would have prohibited the nineteen-year-old shooter from legally buying the rifle he used to kill 17 individuals at Parkland.

As described by the New York Times in its coverage of the bill, debate in the House was long and emotional. Democratic legislator Jared Moskowitz, himself a graduate of Stoneman, implored his colleagues to support the bill, arguing, “This [supporting the bill] isn’t hard. Putting your kid in the ground is hard. This is easy.”

Nevertheless, proposals to raise the minimum age for gun purchases have faced controversy. At the Federal level, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Jeff Flake introduced the Age 21 Act, which would raise the minimum age to purchase assault weapons and high-capacity magazines from 18 to 21. While the bill secured bipartisan support, it nevertheless floundered in committee.

Many of the objections to minimum age laws, like firearm laws more generally, claim that these laws inappropriately restrict individual freedom — claims that, while often invoking legal arguments, ultimately rest on ethical claims. What restrictions on firearm ownership and use are appropriate uses of government authority? To explore these issues, we focused our work on the ethical acceptability of raising the minimum age of purchase and possession of guns to 21. In this article, we outline a few of the objections to these laws and our counterarguments. We refer those interested in the full argument to our manuscript, available in Preventative Medicine.

First, opponents of these and other gun policies often argue that these laws infringe upon the right to bear arms — a right that, they argue, is a fundamental right, and thus meriting special deference. We dispute this characterization. The right to bear arms is certainly a right deeply cherished by many in the United States (including my co-author, who is herself both a gun policy researcher and a gun owner). However, the fact that a right is deeply cherished does not make it rise to the level of a fundamental right — even if it is deeply cherished by many individuals. Instead, following philosophers Hugh LaFolette and David DeGrazia, each of whom have written on the ethics of gun policy, we argue that fundamental rights are those that protect interests that are essential to a person’s life. As described by DeGrazia, fundamental rights are those that are “integrally related to a person’s chance of living a good life, whatever her particular interests, desires, or beliefs happen to be.”

Common examples of fundamental rights include the right to vote and to hold office, the freedom of speech and of assembly, liberty of conscience, and freedom of thought. Regardless of an individual’s preferences, beliefs, or pursuits, these rights are essential to their ability to live a life consistent with those aspects. The same cannot be said for the right to bear arms. We can easily imagine an individual who considers her life “good” despite never owning or even handling a gun. The same cannot be said for an individual denied freedom of speech. We, therefore, argue that the right to bear arms is not a fundamental right.

Nevertheless, the right to bear arms may be an important one, and thus, may still deserve considerable deference by the state. In a liberal society like the United States, there is a strong prerogative to be free from government interference — a sentiment underscored with every “this is not Russia” declaration repeated at various times in recent political debates. Thus, it is generally believed that individuals should be permitted to “live by their own lights,” pursuing activities they themselves determine as important — at least to the point that these activities do not interfere with the rights of others.

For many individuals, owning and using a firearm may be among the activities they consider as being the most important in their lives, whether for enjoyment from sport or for personal protection. Thus, in the US, as in other liberal societies, there is an argument that individuals should be allowed to own and use firearms, free from state interference — so long as they do not harm others. As firearms cause the deaths of 38,000 persons per year in the US and the injury of another 85,000, however, it is reasonable for the government to restrict their ownership and use so as to prevent harm to others.

Another objection made by critics of these laws is that they are “inconsistent” with how they treat individuals by age. According to the critique, if an individual is old enough to serve in the military, to get married, or to vote, they are old enough to own a gun. This comparison, while initially appealing, again fails. As we argue in our paper (and I have argued elsewhere related to proposals to raise the minimum age of sale for tobacco to 21), the risk-benefit profiles of these activities are vastly different. Firearms are among the top five causes of death for those under 65 in the United States. While we may not necessarily agree with the other choices made by those 18-20 with respect to voting or marriage, they clearly do not take the same toll on population health.

In addition, there is a long-standing precedent for establishing different age limits for different types of activities, from permitting car rental companies to refuse to rent a car to those under 25 to prohibiting the sale of alcohol to those under 21, due to the higher rates of crashes among younger individuals. Minimum age limits are also supported by accumulating evidence from psychology and neuroscience that suggest key aspects of psychosocial development may proceed until an individual reaches his or her mid-20s, including those of critical importance for firearms, such as susceptibility to peer influence, sensation and reward-seeking, and impulse control.

Ultimately, we conclude that gun ownership is an important right, but one that is still ethical for states to regulate, including via passage of minimum age laws like the one passed last year in Florida.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily express the official policy or position of Baylor College of Medicine.

These findings are described in the article entitled Time to pull the trigger? Examining the ethical permissibility of minimum age restrictions for gun ownership and use, recently published in the journal Preventive Medicine.

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About The Author

Stephanie Morain is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy. She conducts both empirical and normative research into issues at the intersection of ethics, law, and health policy.

Her work examines political and ethical issues concerning the scope of government authority in public health and the role of stakeholder opinion in shaping decision-making in public health policy. Specific research interests include the ethics and politics of disease control and injury prevention; public health law; and ethical and policy challenges presented by the transition to learning health care systems.

Stephanie received her AB from Lafayette College with a dual major in Biology and History, Government, & Law, her MPH from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, and her PhD from Harvard University's Interfaculty Initiative in Health Policy. She completed her postdoctoral training at the Berman Institute for Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University.