An Easy Fix: Don’t Let 18-Year-Olds Buy Assault Rifles

Federal law requires handgun owners to be at least 21 years old. That's not the case for AR-15s.


A clear pattern of deadly school shootings carried out mostly by young men and teens is prodding more states, including Texas, to consider raising the age of legal gun ownership from 18 to 21.

The five most deadly school shootings in the United States—including the massacre in Uvalde were carried out by a shooter under 21 years old. On May 24, Salvador Ramos murdered 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School using an AR-style assault rifle he could legally purchase in Texas because he’d just turned 18. 

The 2018 shooting at the high school in Santa Fe, between Houston and Galveston, claimed ten lives; the shooter was 17. “For four years, we have held the title of the deadliest school shooting in Texas,” JoElla Lace Kilgore, a Santa Fe shooting survivor, wrote on her Instagram page after she learned of the Uvalde murders. “Today, we no longer hold that title. And what an awful thing that is to lose.”

A 19-year-old fatally shot 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018 – the same year as the shooting in Santa Fe. In response to pressure from students, parents, and teachers, Florida changed its gun laws right after that shooting, raising the age to buy long guns from 18 to 21 with bipartisan support. 

Texas, which has some of the weakest gun laws in the country, sets a minimum ownership age of 18 for all guns. Federal law trumps state law on handguns, so the minimum age for purchase and possession of those weapons in Texas is 21. The result: Texas residents 18 to 20 years old can legally purchase and possess “long guns” such as semiautomatic rifles. 

Many Texas teachers are saying “enough” after Uvalde. 

Clay Robison, a spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, said the professional organization supports raising the age for long-gun ownership to 21, but only “for starters.” The TSTA is the Texas affiliate of the National Education Association, with 3.2 million members. 

“The law that allows 18-year-olds to purchase assault rifles has got to go,” Robison said. “There’s no reason for anyone who is not in the military to have an assault rifle. That should be a no-brainer for the governor and the legislature to get behind. Even that seems to be beyond their capabilities. I hope they see common sense on that.”

Teachers, students, and gun reform advocates plan to hold local rallies on June 11 in conjunction with a “March for Our Lives” event in Washington, D.C., and at more than 100 locations around the United States. In Texas, rallies are planned at the State Capitol in Austin, Amarillo, Dallas, Fort Worth, Frisco, Houston, and San Antonio, said Zeenat Yahya, director of policy for March for Lives. 

The group grew out of a demonstration in Washington, D.C., organized by students after the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. “Our group is not anti-gun,” Yahya said. “We think the standard of gun ownership should be higher,” including raising the minimum age to 21. 

For more than a decade, the pattern in mass school shootings has been clear: In 2012, the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history was committed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The 20-year-old shooter killed 26, including 20 children. And in 1999, two teenagers murdered 12 of their fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado. The average age of shooters in mass school shootings since 1966 was 18, according to an analysis from Metropolitan State University’s James Densley and Hamline University’s Jillian Peterson.

In addition to raising the age to 21 for long guns, Florida also added a three-day waiting period, invested $400 million in mental health programs and school security, and provided training for school staff to carry guns. U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Florida, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” last weekend that “the template for Florida is the right one” and could serve as a national blueprint for other legislation. 

Democrats in the Texas Senate have demanded that Governor Greg Abbott call a special legislative session to tighten state laws on gun ownership, including raising the minimum age to purchase assault rifles. They also want the state to require universal background checks for all firearms sales, allow state courts to remove guns from those who pose a danger to themselves or others under a “red flag” law, require a waiting period to purchase a gun and regulate high-capacity magazines.

Abbott instead has called for “special legislative committees” to devise recommendations on mental health, school safety, police training, and firearm safety. The committees’ recommendations will be considered in the next regular legislative session in 2023. 

Left off the Senate committee appointed by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick are elected representatives from the sites of gun violence in recent years: Santa Fe, El Paso, and Uvalde. State Senator Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat whose district includes Uvalde, has been a vocal critic of Republicans’ cozy relationship with the gun lobby. 

Aaron Phillips, an elementary school teacher in Amarillo and president of the Amarillo Education Association, said he supports holding a special legislative session if it could result in action without putting more responsibilities on teachers. “If I felt like the Texas Legislature had the political will to actively pass protective measures, yes,” he said. “But I don’t have a lot of faith in our current state leadership” to support a “common-sense, evidence-based approach.”

When societal issues such as gun violence come up, all too often the fallback position is to fix it through teachers, Phillips said. “We’re already underfunded and understaffed … there seems to be an endless cycle of dumping on teachers.” 

Rhonda Hart, whose 14-year-old daughter Kimberly Vaughan was killed in the Santa Fe school shooting, took to Twitter after the Uvalde massacre to condemn Abbott’s failure to make schools safer. She also emphasized teachers are not soldiers.

“I’ve been a soldier,” she said in a video tweeted by the Mothers Against Greg Abbott PAC. “And there is no way that I think that guns should be in the classroom. Teachers bring extra lunches. They bring extra supplies for their kids. They don’t bring guns to the classroom.”

What happened in Uvalde finally may be the tipping point to prod states to pass the higher minimum age requirement, Yahya said. “We feel like this time might be different,” she said. “A lot of us are filled with a little bit of hope and a lot of anger.”

“We’ve had more mass shootings than days in the year.”

—Zeenat Yahya

Only ten days before the horrific event in Uvalde, an 18-year-old armed with an assault rifle killed ten people in a racially motivated attack at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store. All of the victims were Black. 

National attention has been focused on the issue after two mass shootings so close together in Uvalde and Buffalo, more than 200 mass shootings so far this year nationwide, and the young ages of the victims and the shooters, she said.

“We’ve had more mass shootings than days in the year,” Yahya observed.

State lawmakers in New York last week passed a gun control package that includes requiring licenses for semiautomatic rifles and requiring license holders to be at least 21. 

Previously only six states—California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Vermont, and Washington—required individuals to be at least 21 to purchase shotguns and rifles generally fired from the shoulder, data compiled by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence shows.

Lawmakers in Utah also have proposed legislation raising the minimum age to buy assault rifles to 21. Arkansas should “at least have a conversation” about the issue, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson told CNN last week. 

And on the national level, President Joe Biden included the topic of raising the minimum age for gun purchases in his national address on gun violence on June 2. 

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called on the Senate to consider her “Age 21 Act” bill raising the minimum age to purchase assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines from 18 to 21. Such legislation looks uncertain, though, in a divided Senate. 

“In fewer than ten days, two mass shootings by 18-year-olds left 31 people dead,” Feinstein said in a news release. “Both these teenage shooters would have been turned away at a bar. But they were able to walk into gun stores and legally purchase one of the most deadly weapons available, weapons that have no place on our streets, in our grocery stores, or in our schools. This is unconscionable.”

Just days after the Uvalde shootings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that showed guns were the leading killer of children and adolescents in 2020, surpassing car accidents for the first time. Gun-related deaths—including suicides, homicides, and unintentional shootings—for those under 19 years old jumped by 29.5 percent from 2019 to 2020. That was more than twice as high as the general population’s 13.5 percent. Overall, total firearm-related deaths rose to 45,222 in 2020—a new peak, the CDC noted.

“The new data are consistent with other evidence that firearm violence has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic,” CDC researchers wrote in a letter to the editor published in the New England Journal of Medicine. “It cannot be assumed that firearm-related mortality will later revert to pre-pandemic levels.” the researchers added. Rather, the CDC views increasing firearm-related deaths as reflecting “a longer-term trend and shows that we continue to fail to protect our youth from a preventable cause of death.”

Whether raising the gun ownership age would prevent school shootings is another matter. Young people could get around the law by buying or stealing guns from friends, parents, or even strangers. Or they could buy “ghost guns”—untraceable firearms with no serial numbers—that come in many forms. 

Dr. Gary W. Floyd, president of the Texas Medical Association, said in an email response to questions from the TexasObserver that the organization hasn’t taken a specific position on raising the gun ownership age to 21.

“But as a pediatrician, I find it tragic that firearms are the number one cause of child deaths—even more than car crashes,” Dr. Floyd said. “Many, if not most, of these deaths are preventable.”

The TMA has formed a new coalition to provide short, intermediate, and long-term mental health support and response to the Uvalde community, he said. The organization will be “an active voice” in the next legislative session and work with elected leaders “to find ways to prevent these tragedies.”