Purchasing and possessing a lethal weapon is a serious responsibility and one that should not be taken lightly. Our country sets minimum ages for driving, voting, and drinking alcohol to encourage responsible behavior. Because young adults are at elevated risk of attempting suicide and engaging in violent behaviors, strengthening minimum age laws for purchasing and possessing guns will help protect young people and the public at large.

Background

Laws imposing minimum age requirements for the possession and purchase of firearms are intended to decrease access to firearms by young people and, correspondingly, to decrease the number of suicides, homicides, and unintentional shootings among that population. Given that young people are at elevated risk of engaging in violent behaviors against themselves or others, these laws have the potential to protect a particularly vulnerable group.

A robust body of academic literature shows that the human brain continues to develop well past the age of 21, particularly in areas that may alter a person’s likelihood of involvement in violence against themselves or others.

  • The parts of the brain responsible for impulse control, judgement, and long-range planning are among the last areas of the brain to fully mature, and in fact, may continue to develop until at least age 26.1
  • The developing brains of adolescents and young adults may put them at higher risk of making risky decisions. Hormonal changes can have significant effects on self-control, decision making, emotions, risk-taking behaviors, and aggressive impulses.2

The biological processes that take place during late adolescence and young adulthood can predispose individuals to riskier and more aggressive behaviors.

  • A study of offenders incarcerated for crimes committed with firearms found that 17% of offenders would have been prohibited from buying a gun if their state had a law that raised the minimum age to possess a handgun to 21 years.3
  • Young people commit gun offenses in high numbers. In 2017, 36,024 young people between the ages of 10 and 21 were arrested for weapons offenses, such as illegally carrying or possessing a firearm.4 This group made up 28% of all arrests for weapons offenses that year.5
  • Data also suggests that young people disproportionately commit gun homicides. For example, 18-20-year olds comprise just 4% of the US population, but account for 17% of known homicide offenders.6

Because impulse regulation and emotional control continues to develop into the mid-20s, young people, including adolescents and people under age 21, are at elevated risk of attempting suicide.

  • Suicide risk is often much higher in the early stages of the onset of major psychiatric conditions, and these symptoms usually first develop in adolescence or early adulthood.7
  • Suicide attempts that result in death or hospital treatment peak at age 16, but are at the highest rates from age 14 through age 21.8
  • Gun access can significantly increase these risks. The association between firearm availability and suicide is strongest among adolescents and young adults.9

Laws that prohibit unsupervised possession or purchase of firearms by children and young people can reduce harm among people under age 21.

  • One study found that state laws raising the minimum legal age to purchase firearms to 21 years were associated with a nine percent decline in rates of firearm suicides among 18-to-20-year-olds.10
  • Controlling for other factors, unintentional firearm deaths and firearm suicides among youth (ages 0-19) also fell after the federal minimum age law was enacted.11

As described below, federal law and the laws in most states continue to allow unsupervised access to firearms by individuals under age 21. Additional information about laws preventing child access to firearms is included in our summary on Child Access Prevention.

Summary of Federal Law

Federal law in this area distinguishes between long guns (rifles and shotguns) and handguns, and between gun possession and gun sales. Federal law also provides stronger age restrictions for sales by licensed gun sellers.

Minimum Age for Gun Sales and Transfers

Under federal law – Handguns                              Long Guns (Rifles and Shotguns)                                   
     
Licensed firearms dealers Dealers may not sell or deliver a handgun or ammunition for a handgun to any person the dealer has reasonable cause to believe is under age 21.12 Dealers may not sell or deliver a long gun, or ammunition for a long gun, to any person the dealer knows or has reasonable cause to believe is under age 18.13
Unlicensed persons Unlicensed persons may not sell, deliver or otherwise transfer a handgun or handgun ammunition to any person the transferor knows or has reasonable cause to believe is under age 18, with certain exceptions*.14 Unlicensed persons may sell, deliver, or otherwise transfer a long gun or long gun ammunition to a person of any age.

 

Minimum Age for Gun Possession: Subject to limited exceptions*, federal law prohibits the possession of a handgun or handgun ammunition by any person under the age of 18.15 Federal law provides no minimum age for the possession of long guns or long gun ammunition.

*Exceptions: Federal law provides exceptions for the temporary transfer and possession of handguns and handgun ammunition for specified activities, including employment, ranching, farming, target practice and hunting.16

Summary of State Law

Several states and the District of Columbia impose minimum age requirements that extend beyond those contained in federal law. Those laws generally fall into four categories:

  • Laws imposing a stricter minimum age for handgun or firearm purchases than federal law;
  • Laws imposing a minimum age for all long gun purchases, from licensed or unlicensed sellers;
  • Laws imposing age requirements for possession of handguns that are stricter than federal law; and
  • Laws imposing a minimum age for possession of long guns.

Additional information about laws preventing child access to firearms is included in our summary on Child Access Prevention.

State Minimum Age Laws That Extend Beyond Federal Law

State Purchase of a Handgun Purchase of a Long Gun17 Possession of a Handgun Possession of a Long Gun
Alabama  1818 1819
Alaska 1820 16 (without parental consent)21
Arizona 18 (without parental consent)22  1823
Arkansas 18 (without parental consent)24
California 2125 2126
Colorado
Connecticut 2127 1828 2129
Delaware 2130 18 (without parental consent)31
D.C. 2132 1833 2134 21 or 18 with parental consent35
Florida 2136 2137 1838
Georgia
Hawaii 2139 2140 2141 2142
Idaho 18 (without parental consent)43 18 (without parental consent or hunting license, or while hunting)44
Illinois 2145 2146 2147 2148
Indiana 1849
Iowa 2150 18 (without parental consent)51 2152 1853
Kansas
Kentucky
Louisiana 1854
Maine 16 for transfers, 18 for sales55
Maryland 2156 1857 2158
Massachusetts 2159 1860 2161  15 (with parental consent) or 1862
Michigan  1863 1864
Minnesota 18 in cities (without parental consent) or 14 outside cities (without parental consent)65 14 (with firearms safety certificate), otherwise 1666
Mississippi
Missouri 18 (without parental consent)67
Montana
Nebraska 2168

 

1869

 

 

Nevada70 1871
New Hampshire
New Jersey 2172 1873 2174 1875
New Mexico 1976
New York 2177 2178 1679
North Carolina
North Dakota “a minor”80  1881
Ohio 2182 1883
Oklahoma 1884 1885
Oregon 1886 18 (without parental consent)87
Pennsylvania 1888 1889
Rhode Island 2190 1891 1892
South Carolina  1893  1894
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas 18 (without parental consent)95
Utah  18 (without parental consent)96 18 (without parental consent)97
Vermont 21 (without a hunting safety certificate)98 21 (without a hunting safety certificate)99 16 (without parental consent)100
Virginia 18101 18 (subject to certain exceptions)102
Washington 21103 21 (for semiautomatic rifles)104 21 (for possession outside private property)105 18106

21 (for possession of semiautomatic rifles outside private property)107

West Virginia 18 (except in hunting)108
Wisconsin 18109 18110
Wyoming  21111  18112

 

State Laws Governing Minimum Age to Purchase and Possess Firearms

For citations to these laws, please see the chart above.

States Imposing Minimum Age Requirements for All Firearm Purchases

Although federal law prohibits licensed dealers from selling long guns to persons under 18, there is no federal regulation of the sale of long guns by unlicensed dealers to minors. Similarly, while federal law prohibits handgun sales by licensed dealers to persons under 21, unlicensed dealers are prohibited only from selling handguns to persons under 18. As listed above, many states have imposed a minimum age for the purchase of all firearms, including both handguns and long guns, regardless of whether they are purchased from a licensed firearms dealer.

States with Stricter Minimum Age Requirements for Possession of Handguns than Federal Law

Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Washington, and the District of Columbia impose minimum age requirements for the possession of handguns which are stricter than the federal minimum of 18.113

States Imposing Minimum Age Requirements for Possession of Long Guns

While federal law prohibits federally licensed firearms dealers from selling a long gun to anyone under 18, there is no federal minimum age for possession of a long gun. Twenty-three states have enacted laws to at least partially close this gap, and impose a minimum age at which persons can possess long guns. Many of these laws contain exceptions which allow younger children to possess long guns where the minor’s parent or guardian is present, or when the minor is engaged in hunting or target shooting.

Selected Local Law

New York City

In New York City, however, no person under age 21 may be granted a permit or license to purchase, possess or carry any firearm, with certain exceptions. It is also unlawful to transfer a firearm to any person under age 21 unless he or she is exempted. A person under 21 may carry, fire or use a rifle or shotgun without being subject to the permit requirement if he or she is in the presence of, or under the direct supervision of, a permit holder, or engaged in a military drill, competition, or target practice at a firing range.114

Key Legislative Elements

The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered. A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.

  • Minimum age of 21 is imposed for all handgun sales, from licensed or unlicensed sellers (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, and District of Columbia).
  • Minimum age of 18 is imposed for all long gun sales, from licensed or unlicensed sellers (23 states and the District of Columbia).
  • Minimum age of 21 is imposed for possession of handguns (Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and the District of Columbia).
  • Minimum age of 18 is imposed for possession of long guns (16 states and the District of Columbia).
  • Younger teens are allowed to possess long guns only under direct adult supervision.
Notes
  1. Elizabeth R. Sowell, et al., “In Vivo Evidence for Post-adolescent Brain Maturation in Frontal and Striatal Regions,” Nature Neuroscience 2, no. 10 (1999); Tulio M. Otero and Lauren A. Barker, “The Frontal Lobes and Executive Functioning,” in Handbook of Executive Functioning (New York: Springer, 2013). ⤴︎
  2. Mariam Arain, et al., “Maturation of the Adolescent Brain,” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 9 (2013); Allan Siegel and Jeff Victoroff, “Understanding Human Aggression: New Insights from Neuroscience.” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 32, no. 4 (2009): 210–211. ⤴︎
  3. Katherine A. Vittes, Jon S. Vernick, and Daniel W. Webster, “Legal Status and Source of Offenders’ Firearms in States with the Least Stringent Criteria for Gun Ownership,” Injury Prevention 19, no. 1 (2013). ⤴︎
  4. 2017 Crime in the United States, Table 38, Uniform Crime Reporting Program, Washington, DC: Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2017/crime-in-the-u.s.-2017/topic-pages/tables/table-38. ⤴︎
  5. Id. ⤴︎
  6. Calculated using data from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports and US Census Bureau. Uniform Crime Reporting Program: Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR), Washington, DC: Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation; US Census Bureau Population Estimates. ⤴︎
  7. Merete Nordentoft, Preben Bo Mortensen, and Carsten Bøcker Pedersen, “Absolute Risk of Suicide after First Hospital Contact in Mental Disorder,” Archives of General Psychiatry 68, no. 10 (2011); Ronald C. Kessler, et al., “Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication,” Archives of General Psychiatry 62, no. 6 (2005). ⤴︎
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS), “Fatal and NonFatal Injury Data,” last accessed Feb. 26, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars. Figures represent an average of the five most recent years of available data (2013-2017). ⤴︎
  9. See Johanna Birckmayer and David Hemenway, “Suicide and Firearm Prevalence: are Youth Disproportionately Affected?,” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 31, no. 3 (2001); Matthew Miller and David Hemenway, “The Relationship between Firearms and Suicide: a Review of the Literature,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 4, no. 1 (1999). ⤴︎
  10. Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, April M. Zeoli, and Jennifer A. Manganello, “Association Between Youth–focused Firearm Laws and Youth Suicides,” JAMA 292, no. 5 (2004). ⤴︎
  11. Mark Gius, “The Impact of Minimum Age and Child Access Prevention Laws on Firearm-related Youth Suicides and Unintentional Deaths,” The Social Science Journal 52, no. 2 (2015). ⤴︎
  12. 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(1), (c)(1). ⤴︎
  13. 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(1), (c)(1). ⤴︎
  14. 18 U.S.C. § 922(x)(1), (5). ⤴︎
  15. 18 U.S.C. § 922(x)(2), (5). ⤴︎
  16. 18 U.S.C. § 922(x)(3). ⤴︎
  17. This chart only includes state laws imposing a minimum age for purchase of a long gun if the law applies to sales by both licensed and unlicensed sellers. ⤴︎
  18. Ala. Code § 13A-11-57. See also Ala. Code § 13A-11-76. For exceptions to this prohibition, please visit Giffords Law Center’s webpage on Minimum Age to Purchase & Possess in Alabama. ⤴︎
  19. Ala. Code § 13A-11-72(b). For exceptions to this prohibition, please visit Giffords Law Center’s webpage on Minimum Age to Purchase & Possess in Alabama. ⤴︎
  20. Alaska Stat. § 11.61.210(a)(6). ⤴︎
  21. Alaska Stat. § 11.61.220(a)(3). ⤴︎
  22. Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-3109(A). ⤴︎
  23. Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-3109(A). However, this restriction does not apply to possession of a firearm on private property owned or leased by the minor or the minor’s parent, grandparent or guardian. ⤴︎
  24. Ark. Code Ann. § 5-73-109(a). ⤴︎
  25. Cal. Penal Code § 27505(a). ⤴︎
  26. Cal. Penal Code § 27510(a). Some exceptions for people over 18 with hunting permits, as well as military and law enforcement. ⤴︎
  27. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 29-34(b). ⤴︎
  28. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 29-37a(b), (c). ⤴︎
  29. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 29-36f. ⤴︎
  30. Del. Code Ann. tit. 24, § 903. ⤴︎
  31. Del. Code Ann. tit. 11, § 1445. ⤴︎
  32. D.C. Code Ann. § 22-4507. ⤴︎
  33. D.C. Code Ann. § 7-2507.06(1). See also D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 24, § 2302.1, 2302.3. ⤴︎
  34. D.C. Code Ann. § 7-2502.03(a)(1). ⤴︎
  35. D.C. Code Ann. §§ 7-2502.03, D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 24, § 2301.1. ⤴︎
  36. Fla. Stat. § 790.065(13). ⤴︎
  37. Fla. Stat. § 790.065(13). ⤴︎
  38. Fla. Stat. Ann. § 790.22(3), (5). ⤴︎
  39. Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 134-2(a), (d). ⤴︎
  40. Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 134-2(a), (d). ⤴︎
  41. Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 134-2(a), (d). ⤴︎
  42. Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 134-2(a), (d). These restrictions are subject to certain exceptions regarding possession of long guns by licensed hunters, etc. ⤴︎
  43. Idaho Code Ann. § 18-3302A. ⤴︎
  44. Idaho Code Ann. §§ 18-3302A, 18-3302E; 18-3302G. ⤴︎
  45. 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/3(a), 65/4. ⤴︎
  46. 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/3(a), 65/4. ⤴︎
  47. 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/2(a)(1), 65/4(a)(2)(i). ⤴︎
  48. 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/2(a)(1), 65/4(a)(2)(i). ⤴︎
  49. Ind. Code Ann. §§ 35-47-10-3, 35-47-10-5. ⤴︎
  50. Iowa Code § 724.22(2). ⤴︎
  51. Iowa Code § 724.22(1). ⤴︎
  52. Iowa Code § 724.22. ⤴︎
  53. Iowa Code § 724.22. ⤴︎
  54. La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 14:91. ⤴︎
  55. Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. 17-A, § 554-A. ⤴︎
  56. Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety § 5-134(d). ⤴︎
  57. Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety § 5-134(d)(1)(ii). ⤴︎
  58. Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety §§ 5-101(r), 5-133(d).  Maryland’s minimum age requirement applies to “regulated firearms,” which are defined as handguns and assault weapons. ⤴︎
  59. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, §§ 130, 131E(a). ⤴︎
  60. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, §§ 130, 131E(a). ⤴︎
  61. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131. ⤴︎
  62. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 129B. ⤴︎
  63. Mich. Comp. Laws Serv. § 750.223(2). This restriction applies to the sale of guns that are more than 26 inches in length. ⤴︎
  64. Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.234f. ⤴︎
  65. Minn. Stat. § 609.66. ⤴︎
  66. Minn. Stat. §§ 97B.021. ⤴︎
  67. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 571.060. ⤴︎
  68. Neb. Rev. Stat. §§ 69-2403, 69-2404. A handgun purchase certificate is generally required to acquire a handgun from an unlicensed seller. Individuals must be 21 to obtain the certificate and, under federal law, must be 21 to obtain a handgun from a licensed dealer. ⤴︎
  69. Neb. Rev. Stat. § 28-1204.01. This restriction does not apply to transfers of long guns from family members or “for a legitimate and lawful sporting purpose.” ⤴︎
  70. Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 202.310. ⤴︎
  71. Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 202.300(1). ⤴︎
  72. N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:58-3.3c, 2C:58-6.1a, 2C:58-3c(4). ⤴︎
  73. N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:39-10e., 2C:58-6.1a, 2C:58-3c(4). ⤴︎
  74. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-6.1b. ⤴︎
  75. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-6.1b. ⤴︎
  76. N.M. Stat. Ann. § 30-7-2.2. ⤴︎
  77. N.Y. Penal Law § 400.00(1)(a),, (12). ⤴︎
  78. N.Y. Penal Law § 400.00(1)(a). ⤴︎
  79. N.Y. Penal Law § 265.05. This law does not apply to the possession of a rifle or shotgun (or the appropriate ammunition) by the holder of a hunting license or permit used in accordance with state law. ⤴︎
  80. N.D. Cent. Code § 62.1-03-02. This section does not prohibit a person from lending or giving a handgun to a minor for use under the direct supervision of an adult and for the purposes of firearm safety training, target shooting, or hunting. Id. ⤴︎
  81. N.D. Cent. Code § 62.1-02-01(1)(d). This prohibition does not apply if the minor is under the direct supervision of an adult and possesses the handgun for the purposes of firearm safety training, target shooting, or hunting. Id. ⤴︎
  82. Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2923.21(B). ⤴︎
  83. Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2923.21(A). ⤴︎
  84. Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 21, §§ 1273 (C), (E), 1283(D). ⤴︎
  85. Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 21, § 1273(A), (E). ⤴︎
  86. Or. Rev. Stat. § 166.470(1)(a). ⤴︎
  87. Or. Rev. Stat. § 166.250. ⤴︎
  88. 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 6110.1(c), (d), 6302. ⤴︎
  89. 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6110.1(a). Pennsylvania’s possession prohibition refers to handguns and to rifles and shotguns of a specified length. It does not encompass all long guns. ⤴︎
  90. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 11-47-35(a)(1), 11-47-37. ⤴︎
  91. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 11-47-30, 11-47-31. ⤴︎
  92. R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-47-33. ⤴︎
  93. S.C. Code Ann. § 16-23-30(A)(3). This prohibition does not apply to the temporary loan of handguns for instructions under the immediate supervision of a parent or adult instructor. Id. ⤴︎
  94. S.C. Code Ann. § 16-23-30(B). This prohibition does not apply to the temporary loan of handguns for instructions under the immediate supervision of a parent or adult instructor. Id. ⤴︎
  95. Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 46.06(a)(2), (c). ⤴︎
  96. Utah Code Ann. § 76-10-509.9. ⤴︎
  97. Utah Code Ann. § 76-10-509. ⤴︎
  98. Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 13, § 4020, enacted by 2017 VT S 55, Sec. 7. ⤴︎
  99. Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 13, § 4020, enacted by 2017 VT S 55, Sec. 7. ⤴︎
  100. Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 13, § 4008. ⤴︎
  101. Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-309. See also Va. Code Ann. § 1-207 (defining “minor”). ⤴︎
  102. Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-308.7. ⤴︎
  103. Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 9.41.240, effective July 1, 2019. ⤴︎
  104. Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 9.41.240, effective July 1, 2019. ⤴︎
  105. Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 9.41.240. ⤴︎
  106. Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 9.41.040(2)(a)(iii), 9.41.042. ⤴︎
  107. Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 9.41.240, effective July 1, 2019. ⤴︎
  108. W. Va. Code §§ 61-7-2(9); 61-7-8. ⤴︎
  109. Wis. Stat. § 948.60(2)(b). ⤴︎
  110. Wis. Stat. § 948.60(2)(a). ⤴︎
  111. Wyo. Stat. § 6-8-404(d)(i)(A). ⤴︎
  112. Wyo. Stat. § 6-8-404(d)(i)(B). ⤴︎
  113. The District’s Chief of Police may issue a registration certificate to an applicant between the ages of 18 and 21 years old who is otherwise qualified if the application is accompanied by a notarized statement from the applicant’s parent or guardian stating that: 1) the applicant has the permission of his parent or guardian to own and use the firearm to be registered; and 2) the parent or guardian assumes civil liability for all damages resulting from the actions of such applicant in the use of the firearm to be registered. D.C. Code Ann. § 7-2502.03(a)(1).  This type of registration certificate expires on the person’s 21st birthday. D.C. Code Ann. § 7-2502.03(a)(1)(B). ⤴︎
  114. New York, N.Y., Charter §§ 462-464; Admin. Code § 10-303 et seq. ⤴︎