WASHINGTON ― Requiring gun buyers to be at least 21 won’t stop 18-year-olds from buying guns and impulsively killing people, according to several Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee.
Their argument rests on their belief that people who are intent on doing harm will do so regardless of whether there are laws against it ― a way of thinking that calls into question the entire enterprise of writing laws.
Democrats called the hearing Thursday to advance a package of gun control legislation in response to recent high-profile mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas and Buffalo, New York in which 18-year-olds killed more than 30 people combined.
A key part of the package would raise the federal minimum age for buying most shotguns and rifles, including the AR-15 assault rifles that were used in both the shootings, to 21.
Current law under the Gun Control Act only requires someone to be 21 to buy a handgun from a licensed dealer, but anyone at least 18 years of age can purchase shotguns, rifles and ammunition. The gunman in Uvalde who killed 19 schoolchildren legally bought assault rifles from a licensed dealer just days after his 18th birthday.
“This bill would not address the tragedies we’ve seen unfold around the country in the last couple weeks,” Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the committee’s top Republican, said during the Thursday hearing.
“It would not stop the terrible events we saw, wouldn’t harden schools,” Jordan added, referring to Republican proposals to increase school security, such as by adding armed guards, arming teachers and reducing the number of doors on school buildings.
In the wake of the shootings, many Republicans have described Democratic proposals as futile, arguing Congress is powerless to stop mass shooters except by giving more firepower to their intended targets. The futility argument was out in force at Thursday’s hearing.
“These bills that have been presented… would not have prevented what happened in the last three shootings and many other shootings,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-Col.) said.
“We have a serious problem involving families, involving drugs, involving mental health in this country,” Buck continued. “We have gone the wrong direction in the last 40 or 50 years. We have become a less safe society generally. Blaming the gun for what’s happening in America is small-minded.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said a higher age limit wouldn’t stop “determined” teenagers from becoming mass shooters. “I don’t think that these people wouldn’t wait a year or two” to buy their guns, he said.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) suggested that any effort to write a law reducing gun crime would be a waste of time, because all gun crimes are committed by criminals.
“Every one of these bills is unserious and unconstitutional and suffers from the problem ― the inherent problem that almost all gun control suffers from,” Massie said. “That is: Criminals do not obey the law. They do not follow the law.”
Never mind that the same argument could be made against any proposed law with criminal penalties.
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) pointed out that a higher age requirement would, in fact, have made a difference in Uvalde and in Buffalo.
“For every time someone sits in this meeting and says nothing we’re doing here would have prevented this, well actually, if we had a law it said you have to be 21 to buy, then these two AR-15s would not have been purchased,” Deutch said.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said the higher gun-buying age would also have prevented mass shootings in Santa Fe, Texas; Parkland, Florida; Newtown, Connecticut; and Columbine, Colorado.
“Those would not have been able to happen if those killers couldn’t get the gun because they weren’t old enough yet,” Cicilline said. “Stop saying nothing in this legislation would have changed anything. That is a lie.”
Even if the shooters in Uvalde and Buffalo had been unable to buy their rifles from licensed dealers, the proposed law would not have blocked them from buying the guns from an unlicensed source, such as from a hobbyist at a gun show or some random person on the internet. Democrats have proposed expanding background checks to cover such unlicensed transactions but not raising the age limit for them.
Though the federal age requirement for buying shotguns and rifles is 18 years of age or older, Florida raised the age limit for gun purchases to 21 after a teen gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida. But Republicans from Florida, including Sen. Rick Scott, who signed the age restriction into law as Florida’s governor at the time, have not supported a higher age limit nationally.
Not all Republicans agreed about the uselessness of a higher age limit. Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) uttered that the proposed age restriction could have made a difference in Uvalde and New York.
“If they couldn’t acquire them legally, and you assume they wouldn’t have gotten them otherwise, it could have stopped that particular incident,” Bishop told HuffPost during a break in the hearing.
But Bishop and other Republicans had another argument against the higher age requirement: that it could be unconstitutional because the Supreme Court has said the Second Amendment of the Constitution protects an individual’s right to own a gun.
A federal appeals court ruled last month that a California law disallowing gun sales to people under 21 was unconstitutional. Another federal court last year said the federal law banning handgun sales to those under 21 was unconstitutional, though the decision was later vacated as moot because the plaintiffs were no longer 21.
Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Col.) countered that an appeals court decision isn’t “the final word on the constitutionality of a given provision.”
Other new gun control measures Democrats are taking up include a ban on high-capacity magazines, requirements that all guns be traceable and rules for storing guns in houses with children.