Overview:

Raising the legal age for all things consequential in America could reduce gun violence by curtailing young men's access to firearms.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

On a TV news show the other day, I listened to a Republican congressman opine that it was nonsensical and unfair to consider raising the legal age to buy firearms to over 18. In his opinion, 18-year-olds in this country can already legally vote and can also choose to put their life on the line in the military, so they should certainly be able to buy guns.

To which I counter: Why should any 18-year-old (males, in particular) be allowed to do any of those things listed above: vote, buy guns, or be combat soldiers?

Teen and young adult males have long stood out from other subgroups for their impulsive behavior. … They are far more reckless and prone to violence than their counterparts in other age groups, and their leading causes of death include fights, accidents, driving too fast.

“Young men, guns and the prefrontal cortex,” the washington post

I’m not just yanking your chain for cheap attention. Legally granting still-developing American adolescent males the latitude to brandish weapons at home or abroad with potentially profound consequences for themselves and others makes little sense to me under any scenario. And to be consistent, these adult-sized kids—because psychologically and emotionally, they are still children—should also be prohibited from particular other adult rights, like voting, and buying and drinking alcohol, for instance.

Also for consistency, I would even add to the list of prohibited privileges motor-vehicle driving, which is probably the most dangerous thing Americans do in their day-to-day lives. But I’d bet most parents would reject the notion with horror, considering the enormous amount of time saved when kids with cars, rather than their parents, shuttle themselves to their dizzying blizzard of adolescent activities.

Remember when you were young?

The fundamental question is: are kids truly ready for the adult decisions and enterprises they are now legally authorized to entertain?

Indeed, which of us supposedly now-wizened adults could, with a straight face, claim that in our adolescence we had the requisite knowledge, thoughtful judgment, and maturity to rationally or dispassionately do anything, much less something life-alteringly consequential? Could we, for example, have acted honorably and responsibly after downing six (or more) ill-considered, and illegal, beers.

Arguing for the “right” age for voting, gun-toting, military combat, and driving quickly becomes circular: If this … then that … confirming this.

If kids as young as 18 (and sometimes younger, with parental permission), by law, are already ostensibly considered mature enough to vote and be combat soldiers in this country, then how—goes the argument—can we deny them the right to buy firearms or enjoy any other adult right and privilege?

It seems a fair point.

However, the problem with that line of reasoning is that it assumes, in the first place, the unerring wisdom of allowing young people who are effectively still kids to officially fight and die for the nation. Voting, gun-buying, alcohol-swigging (and arguably driving) rights stem directly from that, with proponents circling back to the right-to-enlist (or the duty to be drafted) when challenged on the others.

But who says any recruit as young as 18, in an ethical sense, should be taking up arms against enemies of America either voluntarily, or in the case of a draft, involuntarily? There is something profoundly unseemly about using non-adults as cannon fodder in war.

Most nations allow 18-year-old combat soldiers

There’s little information online about the rationale for allowing teenage military recruits—a large majority of nations (almost all, in fact) legally authorize enlistment at 18 without parental approval.

The consensus cut-off age appears to be an offshoot of tradition, based on the idea that the youngest men will have the required minimum education, and optimum healthiness and physical fitness military forces require and to present the most formidable presence possible on a battlefield along with the promise of a quicker recovery than older recruits from battlefield injuries (and a quick return to combat).

But what about the ethics and morality of putting adolescent children in such adult harm’s way?

Scientific studies show that the male prefrontal cortex, which directly controls behavioral impulses—like murderous rage and aggression—and other critical “executive functions” of the brain, is still developing until the mid-to late 20s.

‘Young men, guns and the prefrontal cortex’

A Washington Post article this month— “Young men, guns and the prefrontal cortex”—considers this worrisome deficit in a surging spate of mass shootings in recent years commonly if not usually committed by young males aged 17-21:

“Teen and young adult males have long stood out from other subgroups for their impulsive behavior,” the Post pointed out. “They are far more reckless and prone to violence than their counterparts in other age groups, and their leading causes of death include fights, accidents, driving too fast, or, as [Vanderbilt University psychiatrist Jonathan] Metzl put it, ‘other impulsive kinds of acts.’

“There’s a lot of research about how their brains are not fully developed in terms of regulation,” he said.Perhaps most significantly, studies show, the prefrontal cortex, which is critical to understanding the consequences of one’s actions and controlling impulses, does not fully develop until about age 25. In that context, Metzl said, a shooting ‘certainly feels like another kind of performance of young masculinity.’”

So, the question is, why would a nation give young men the agency to enlist in the military—a life-or-death choice—when their ability to make any sound decision is so immature? And worse, allow teens and very young men to buy semi-automatic firearms when their capacity for impulse control and responsible behavior are often still so woefully underdeveloped?

Read: The mating minds of mass shooters

A tragic list of adolescent gun violence

To this point, here is a list of high-profile school mass shootings in recent years, where the ages of the perpetrators were 17-23. And yet, we have done virtually nothing legislatively to stop them:

These were very troubled kids whose still-developing pre-frontal cortexes were grievously unready to handle ownership of any firearm, much less semi-automatic, combat-style “assault rifles” easily capable of mowing down scores of victims in a mad minute.

Clinical psychologist and assistant professor Hector A. Garcia contends that mass shootings by young men are the result of male brains primed by evolution for securing sexual partners. Garcia, who teaches at the University of Texas, San Antonio, Medical Center, writes that males in their sexual prime throughout human history have fought to eliminate other males in a competition for female mates.

It is an instinct ripe for violence if the end goal is thwarted. In his essay, Garcia lists a number of 20-something mass killers who specifically blamed their failure to find sexual partners and fulfillment as the igniter of their killing sprees.

What we have are evolutionary potentialities baked into the psychology of young men, activated by a confluence of social and cultural pressures.

Hector A. Garcia, “The mating minds of mass shooters

One of these young men, a 22-year-old who stabbed and shot seven people to death in 2014 in Isla Vista, California, lamented his dispiriting impotence in life:

“I’m 22 years old and still a virgin, never even kissed a girl,” he said. “… It has been very torturous.”

Why allow non-adults to fight in war?

Taking this further, a fair argument can be made that allowing essentially non-adults to enlist in the armed forces for combat on their own volition, as they are in many countries, including the U.S., could be considered a form of child abuse. It could be reasoned that 17- or 18-year-old males, even fairly stable ones, are not really equipped to objectively and maturely make that decision and, thus, are vulnerable to being emotionally manipulated into joining organizations that could potentially lead to their deaths. The U.S. Marine Corps has been trolling for recruits for literally centuries with the same compelling slogan—”A few good men”—coined in 1779 by Captain William Jones in an advertisement for American naval enlistees.

Of course, military leaders could argue that the enlistment age needs to be that low or a large enough pool of capable recruits wouldn’t exist to effectively populate the nation’s armed forces, gravely putting national security at risk. Perhaps.

But still, it seems a limp excuse for putting almost-men officially in harm’s way. I wonder, what would happen to war if the minimum age for enlistment (or drafting) were higher, ideally after recruits have learned how to speak truth to government power?

Nonetheless, the vast majority of nations have made the shared calculation that younger recruits are the only way to go.

What if the youngest combat soldiers were, say, 25?

Before he died a few years ago, a close relative of mine used to wonder aloud what would happen to American wars if the enlistment and draft age were raised to 21. He figured that by that age, most young men would be far less susceptible to the allure of military glory, which generations of professional soldiers and military leaders have concluded is a dangerous mirage. Even storied Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, who promised to “make Georgia howl” (and did) during the U.S. Civil War, famously described war as “hell” on earth.

“War is cruelty. There’s no use trying to reform it; the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

William Tecumseh Sherman, Union general in the U.S. Civil War

Once, speaking to graduates of a military school, he pointedly tried to disabuse the young men of romantic notions of battlefield glory, as Lt. Col. Dave Grossman reported in his classic book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

“I am sick and tired of war,” Sherman told the students. “Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”

What about raising the draft or enlistment age—and the legal age for gun ownership and use—to as high as 25?

I’m just saying that if only people 25 and older were legally authorized to use firearms in war or peace—a ridiculously unlikely prospect, I’ll admit given America’s deeply embedded gun culture—it would certainly make recruits and, thus, the nation think twice (maybe even three times?) about going to war. And I suspect the number of domestic deaths by aggressive gun violence and suicide might plummet as well, as it has in other countries that instituted tough gun laws.

But as more than one survivor of the May 24 shooting in Uvalde, Texas, lamented, some Americans seem to care more about guns than children. And as we continue to see the same-age people committing these heinous crimes of gun violence, we could include “young adult males” too.

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...