The issue of gun control has been deadlocked for so long that any forward movement is an achievement. In large part due to the work of Stoneman Douglas student activists, we’ve arrived at a rare moment where this movement is starting to look very possible.
Because 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz purchased his AR-15 style rifle legally, the policy idea legislators and companies seem to be open to is raising the minimum age of purchasing guns from 18 to 21. You already have to be 21 to buy a licensed handgun, but the minimum legal age for buying an assault weapon remains at 18 (an outdated law designed for purchasing hunting rifles, which fall under the same category of “long guns”). Last week, in one of his first major breaks with the NRA, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott, endorsed raising the age of gun ownership to 21. On Wednesday, Trump said he was going to give the idea “a lot of consideration.” Senators Dianne Feinstein and Jeff Flake introduced a bill the same day that would do just that: “This bipartisan fix is long overdue,” Flake said in the press release.
While there is nothing inherently bad with the idea of raising the legal age of gun ownership (preferably, it would be raised to 210 years), the problem is that this new push takes away the focus from guns onto teens.
First off, there’s little evidence that raising the minimum age would do much good. According to Vox, of the 156 mass shootings that the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety counted since 2009, only two were committed with an assault rifle by someone under 21 years old. Of those two, only one of those rifles was purchased legally. And while the legal age to buy a handgun is 21, the age limit is still 18 for those purchasing from an unlicensed dealer. Not to mention the glaring loophole of how easy it would remain for teens to just swipe their parents’ guns that are lying around the house.
Because Cruz was a teen, we are talking about raising the minimum age. And because the shooting happened in a school, and students are understandably traumatized and nervous to return to school, we are talking about school safety.
But there is no epidemic of mass school shootings, which are exceedingly rare. According to recent research out from Northeastern University, schools have actually gotten safer than they were in the ‘90s. Since 1996, there were only eight mass shootings in schools, which, the report points out, makes it more likely for kids to be killed from pool drownings or bicycle accidents.
As Eric Levitz argues at New York Magazine, centering the conversation around school safety could very easily veer off into criminalization of students, which would (and already) disproportionately affect minorities. “After all,” Levitz writes, “if the March for Our Lives mission statement were actually true—if ‘every kid in this country’ went ‘to school wondering if this day might be their last’—then there would be a reasonable case for filling American schools with law enforcement agents and increasing the use of juvenile detention.”
Lawmakers want to deliver something to a public that is clamoring for gun control. The danger lies in Trump and Republicans using minimum age legislation and school security as a distraction from passing more effective policies. But the issue isn’t Nikolas Cruz’s age and how he got a gun. It’s that gun ownership for private citizens is legal in the first place.