why 18 year olds in texas can legally buy assault rifles

This story was originally published by ProPublica. This article is co-edited with The Texas Tribune, a local nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom that informs and engages with Texans. Check in to The Brief weekly to catch up on his essential coverage of Texas issues.


The fact that the gunman responsible for this week’s massacre in Uvalde, Texas, was able to buy two AR-15s days after his 18th birthday highlights how much easier it is for Americans to buy rifles than pistols.

Under federal law, Americans who buy handguns from licensed dealers must be at least 21 years old, which would have barred the killer from purchasing such a weapon. That trumps Texas law, which only requires buyers of any type of firearm to be 18 or older.

Following the massacre at Robb Elementary School, which killed 19 children and two adults, a growing number of lawmakers in Texas and beyond are calling for the minimum age to purchase assault rifles to be raised from 18 to 21. Doing so would require undoing nearly two centuries of more permissive regulations on so-called long guns.

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“It’s something that could happen at the state or federal level, but I don’t see movement on either front,” said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a criminal law professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

Only six states — Florida, Washington, Vermont, California, Illinois and Hawaii — have raised the minimum age to buy long guns to 21, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Most did after the 2018 massacre in Parkland, Florida, where a 19-year-old assailant killed 17 people at a high school. Since then, several states have faced legal challenges.

The National Rifle Association sought to repeal the Florida law.

“The ban infringes on the right of all 18- to 20-year-olds to purchase firearms for the exercise of their Second Amendment rights, including for self-defense at home,” the NRA argued in a court filing, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “The prohibition not only limits the right, it erases it.”

The government’s lawyers, however, argued that because “18-20 year olds are uniquely likely to engage in impulsive, emotional and risky behaviors that offer immediate or short-term rewards, drawing the line for the legal purchase of firearms at age 21 is a reasonable method of addressing the legislature’s public safety concerns.”

A federal judge upheld the law last year; the NRA is appealing.

A US Court of Appeals recently ruled that California’s version of the law was unconstitutional, though it upheld a provision that requires adults under the age of 21 to obtain a hunting license before purchasing a rifle or shotgun.

After the Uvalde shooting this week, lawmakers in New York and Utah also called on their states to raise the age limit for long gun purchases to 21. US Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced federal legislation earlier this month, less than a week before the Uvalde shooting. — that would raise the minimum age to buy assault weapons from 18 to 21; the California Democrat said in a statement it was in response to a shooting that killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket. That gunman was also 18 years old.

“It doesn’t make sense that it’s illegal for someone under 21 to buy a firearm or even a beer, but they can legally buy an assault weapon,” he said.

Lindsay Nichols, director of federal policy at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said raising the age requirement at the federal level may be more effective because federal authorities can inspect and discipline gun dealers. with licence.

“State authorities often don’t have a system in place to enforce the laws that govern” authorized dealers, Nichols said.

In the hours after the Uvalde shooting, there was some confusion about what type of firearms were used. Texas Governor Greg Abbott initially said the killer had a pistol and possibly a rifle. That led some to speculate that he had been able to obtain the guns more easily because of recent changes in Texas gun laws, including a bill passed last year that allows Texans to carry guns without permits or training. But those early reports turned out to be inaccurate.

After it became clear the weapon used was a rifle, Texas Democrats questioned why the teen was able to buy one at the age of 18.

“Why do we accept a government that allows an 18-year-old to buy an assault rifle, but not tobacco products?” state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat who chairs the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said in a statement. “The hypocrisy of the government is deafening. We can develop a gun policy that does not infringe on one’s constitutional right while preserving and protecting life; that is called multitasking and we can do it”.

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, a Democrat from Houston, called on Abbott to call a special session of the legislature so lawmakers can “pass real gun reform,” including raising the minimum age to buy long guns.

“Enough is enough,” he said.

Such a measure would reverse a decades-old Texas system that treats handguns differently from long guns, which have long been exempt from state open-carry rules.

The disparate rules date back to the post-Civil War era, when the state, contrary to its modern reputation, adopted some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation.

“Despite its stereotype of being a state where cowboys promiscuously carry six shots, Texas is one of the few states that absolutely prohibits private individuals from carrying handguns,” firearms attorney Stephen Halbrook wrote in a 1989 article. . Baylor Law Review article, six years before former Texas Governor George W. Bush significantly relaxed gun regulations.

Following the spasms of violence that gripped the fledgling state in the 19th century, lawmakers “began to specifically target guns they equated with crime,” said Texas historian Brennan Rivas, who is writing a book on early gun laws. state arms. “They compared Bowie knives, daggers and guns to interpersonal violence and crime.”

Muskets, rifles, and shotguns, by comparison, were excluded because they were used for hunting or participating in a militia.

“They didn’t consider long guns to be lethal weapons,” Rivas said. “Those had valuable uses. Whereas these other weapons were like a plague in polite society.”

Lawmakers at the time could not have imagined that long guns would go from heavy hunting rifles to AR-15s capable of firing dozens of rounds per minute, Rivas added.

But it seems unlikely that tougher requirements will pass in Texas.

Just last year, following high-profile massacres in El Paso and in Midland and Odessa in 2019, lawmakers passed a variety of measures relaxing gun regulations. In addition to authorizing the carrying of firearms in public without a permit or training, the laws prohibit the governor from limiting gun sales during an emergency and allow gun owners to bring their weapons into hotel rooms.

During a news conference Wednesday at Uvalde High School, Abbott repeated a claim he and other Republican state leaders have often made: that mental health issues are to blame for the spate of mass shootings, not lax regulations on weapons. Officials admitted they were unaware the shooter had mental health or criminal issues.

“The ability for an 18-year-old to purchase a long gun has existed in the state of Texas for more than 60 years,” Abbott said. “And why for most of those 60 years did we not have school shootings? And why do we do it now?

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