By Justin Yang
Justin Yang is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.
After the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, there has been a renewed national debate on gun control, and one that thankfully seems to be different than those in the past. Media attention has been sustained, and students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas and elsewhere have effectively organized walk-outs and marches. Many proposals that have arisen through this debate are worth considering, from an assault weapons ban to limits on the size of magazines. However, although I support a broad range of gun control provisions, one proposal being seriously discussed would run into immediate constitutional and legal issues—the proposal to raise the gun-purchasing age to 21.
According to current federal law, it is illegal for federally licensed gun dealers to sell a handgun to someone under 21 years of age.  However, while handguns can be sold to 18-year-olds in private sales and gun shows, long guns such as rifles and shotguns can be sold to 18-year-olds by both licensed dealers and unlicensed sellers.  Clearly, there are still a wide variety of ways an 18-year-old can legally buy a gun, which has raised concerns among gun-control advocates and even traditional gun-rights advocates—Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott has recently signed a bill that, among other things, raises the minimum age for purchasing rifles to 21, and politicians such as President Donald Trump, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Kansas Senator Pat Roberts have signalled their support for such a proposal.  After all, the shooter in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was 19-years-old and had used his own legally purchased semi-automatic rifle to kill.  Many others have pointed out current law allows a person who cannot legally buy alcohol to be able to walk into a store and purchase an AR-15 with little difficulty.  Clearly, the argument goes, the law needs to be fixed to resolve this absurdity.
However, the most obvious distinction between a minimum age for buying alcohol and a minimum age for buying handguns is while there is no constitutional right to alcohol (hence the existence of Prohibition in our history), the right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. This distinction requires a higher level of scrutiny on restrictions of gun purchases than alcohol purchases. As such, a more accurate comparison would be between two constitutionally protected rights: the right to own a gun and the right to obtain an abortion. Abortion was established as a legal right in Roe v. Wade, but just as District of Columbia v. Heller stated that the Second Amendment is not unlimited, the right to an abortion can be subject to regulatory limitations as well. 
The standard for judging these regulations on abortion was decided in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which established the “undue burden” test.  In that case, one of the laws being challenged was a parental consent provision which required unmarried minors under 18-years-old to receive the consent of one of her guardians before she could obtain an abortion. This provision was upheld by the Supreme Court because it provided a judicial bypass, or a procedural method of circumventing the requirement, for those who were unable to obtain parental consent.  However, the main point is that it appears a similar restriction on the right to have an abortion on a woman above the age of 18 would be struck down—the Supreme Court and the laws of the United States have clearly taken the age of majority, the age at which a person is bequeathed the rights and duties of a fully rational adult, to be 18-years-old.
There are many other places where 18 is the widely accepted age where our full constitutional rights kick in. An example could be seen in our Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. In Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court considered whether Missouri could execute Christopher Simmons, an adult who committed a murder when he was 17-years-old and still a junior in high school. The court ruled juveniles under the age of 18 could not be executed due to a lack of maturity and sense of responsibility compared to adults.  Another example is in our voting age, where 18 years of age has not only become the accepted age of majority for political participation, but has also been explicitly enshrined in the Constitution through the Twenty-Sixth Amendment. The amendment was ratified in 1971, driven in large part by the Vietnam War. If we can send 18-year-olds to fight and die for our country, they should be able to choose the politicians who drafted them; similarly, perhaps we should allow those who are old enough to carry a gun to fight for our country to be able to buy one for self-defense. Once again, we see that as far as age limits go with regards to our constitutional rights, 18 years of age is widely accepted as the standard, and there is no constitutional reason to treat the Second Amendment any differently.
Of course, this is not to say that a minimum age of 21 should be impossible, or more effective gun control measures cannot be adopted; after all, the aforementioned Florida legislation imposes further gun limits beyond a minimum age, including a waiting period and restrictions on bump stocks. Recently, major gun retailers such as Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart have unilaterally limited their firearms sales to only those who are at least 21-years-old.  Although these corporate policies will not be as effective as national legislation, they are still helpful and more importantly, they are more free from possible legal issues. After all, the Second Amendment applies only against the government, not private individuals, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 doesn’t cover retail stores and doesn’t protect against age discrimination. Of course, whether these retailers are permitted under state laws to limit their firearm sales is another matter—a man is suing Dick’s under Michigan civil rights law—but retailers have a much greater latitude in imposing these restrictions in general.  More importantly, however, the existence of constitutional issues surrounding a minimum age proposal should be seen as impetus to go beyond such piecemeal provisions and enact comprehensive gun control regulations that can be more effective at saving lives than simply fiddling with age limits.
There is little difference between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old, just as there is little difference between a 20-year-old and a 21-year-old. Still, a line needs to be drawn somewhere, and society has agreed that once a person turns 18, they become fully rational and independent adults, and the Constitution can and does treat them accordingly. Such an assumption of adulthood must be consistent if it is to exist at all—it is absurd that we assume all our full constitutional rights as adults save one. Therefore, the Second Amendment must apply equally to all adults, rendering age limits above 18 unconstitutional.
 “Minimum Age to Purchase and Possess.” Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Accessed March 4, 2018. http://lawcenter.giffords.org/gun-laws/policy-areas/who-can-have-a-gun/minimum-age/
 Mazzei, Patricia. “Florida Governor Signs Gun Limits Into Law, Breaking with the N.R.A.” New York Times, March 9, 2018. Accessed March 13, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/09/us/florida-governor-gun-limits.html
Scherer, Michael. “Florida Gov. Rick Scott backs raising age for rifle purchases to 21.” Washington Post, February 23, 2018. Accessed March 4, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/florida-gov-rick-scott-backs-raising-age-for-gun-purchases-to-21/2018/02/23/4dc444f6-18a6-11e8-8b08-027a6ccb38eb_story.html?utm_term=.af5e2bd03f1c
 Beckett, Lois. “Most Americans can buy an AR-15 rifle before they can buy beer.” Guardian, February 16, 2018. Accessed March 4, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/feb/16/americans-age-to-buy-ar15-assault-rifle-mass-shootings
 District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008). https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/07-290_0
 Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992). https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/505/833
 Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 511 (2005). https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/03-633.ZO.html
 Creswell, Julie, Michael Corkery. “Walmart and Dick’s Raise Minimum Age for Gun Buyers to 21.” New York Times, February 28, 2018. Accessed March 4, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/28/business/walmart-and-dicks-major-gun-retailers-will-tighten-rules-on-guns-they-sell.html
 Martindale, Mike. “Mich. student, 18, sues Dick’s for barring gun purchase.” Detroit News, March 9, 2018. Accessed March 13, 2018. https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/oakland-county/2018/03/09/dicks-sporting-goods-gun-sale-lawsuit/32785353/
Photo Credit: Flickr User Richard Gillin
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