Psych Professor's Crazy Idea: Ban Gun Ownership Until Age 25

Psych Professor's Crazy Idea: Ban Gun Ownership Until Age 25
AP Photo/Andrew Selsky

The Washington Post continues its war on legal gun ownership with a new op-ed by Drew Weston, a psychology and psychiatry professor at Emory University, who declares that banning gun ownership for those under the age of 25 shouldn’t be allowed to own a firearm.

Whereas many of us know the dangers posed by young drivers, a key risk factor that has received too little in discussions of gun violence is age. People between the ages of 14 and 24 constitute just over 16 percent of the population in the United States, but they commit nearly half of the murders — and most use firearms. The pattern of murder offenses by age shows a clear arc: It rises sharply in the late teens, peaks between the ages of 20 and 24, and then begins to decline.

There are developmental reasons people in their late teens and early 20s, especially males, are particularly likely to engage in gun violence and other dangerous acts (like my reckless driving). A crucial factor is that the frontal lobes — which help us think through our actions — do not fully mature until roughly age 25. There is, moreover, another brain-development issue relevant to mass shootings in particular: The teens and early 20s are a crucial window for the onset of severe mental illness, particularly psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. That window begins to close around age 25.

These facts open the door to a gun-regulation compromise. Even if more aggressive measures are stymied by gridlock, Congress might consider banning the sale of firearms to people under 25 (except, perhaps, hunting rifles). Even conservatives have shown some appetite for age-based restrictions: Just three weeks after the shooting in Parkland, the then-governor of Florida, Republican Rick Scott — now in the U.S. Senate — signed a bill shifting the age for purchasing a firearm from 18 to 21. But the choice of 21 was arbitrary. Recent research in neuroscience suggests that 25 makes more sense.

Actually, the “research” doesn’t suggest that a gun ban of any kind makes sense. It’s Weston’s interpretation of the data that leads him to believe we should ban gun ownership for those under the age of 25.

Take Weston’s assertion that almost half of all homicides are committed by individuals between the ages of 16 and 24. According to the FBI, there were a little more than 16,000 homicides in the United States in 2019. That means that roughly 8,000 16-24 year olds committed a murder, and I’m guessing the majority of them weren’t legal gun owners to begin with.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 38-million Americans between the ages of 16 and 24. That means that far less than 1% of individuals in that age group commit homicides. Why on earth would Weston think that preventing adults 18-24 from owning a firearm is the way to address the fact that 0.00001% of that age group are actually using firearms in acts of violence?

What the research actually shows is that the vast majority of 16-24 year olds aren’t violent criminals, even if their frontal lobes are not fully developed. In fact, even as Weston argues in favor of restricting the Second Amendment rights of young adults, he ends up making the case against targeting gun control towards that age group.

Several businesses whose profits depend on the safe use of their services recognize the risk posed by people in their late teens and early 20s. For decades, insurance companies have charged young drivers and their parents high fees because they are responsible for a disproportionate share of accidents. Most car-rental companies refuse to serve people under 25.

Both industries came to this conclusion after looking at actuarial tables. In 2019, for example, Americans ages 20-24 died at a higher rate than anyone under the age of 80. Sensory deficits and slower reflexes are the problem in the latter group, recklessness in the former. The analogy between driving and gun safety is not incidental. In America, car accidents are the leading cause of death in teenagers and young adults. Gun violence is second.

Car accidents are the leading cause of death for 20-24 year olds, yet we don’t ban driving until you turn 25, nor does Weston suggest that’s the answer. Why is that? Presumably Weston would say it’s because driving is a necessity, while he believes gun ownership isn’t. Of course, if you’re a young adult living in a neighborhood with high rates of violent crime, you’d likely have a very different perspective. Unlike driving, however, that young adult in a high-crime neighborhood may not have access to training and education to help them become a responsible gun owner, because many deep-blue urban areas have, for decades, simply tried to make gun ownership taboo.

Weston seems very proud of himself for his suggestion, which he hopes gun control activists will take up along with other restrictions including a national gun registry and a ban on modern sporting rifles. He should be embarrassed instead. What he’s offering is simply another step down the wrong road. We can’t ban our way to safety, and trying to keep tens of millions of young adults from exercising a constitutionally-protected individual right because the science suggests that young adults are immature and a tiny fraction of them misuse firearms to commit acts of violence is sheer lunacy.

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