Guns and Our Youth


Gun violence permeates American culture. Over 34,000 gun-related homicides have occurred since 2013. Eighteen to 20-year-olds account for only 4% of the population, yet they are responsible for causing as many as 17% of gun-related deaths. In response to the high concentration of homicides in this age group, the federal government adopted laws restricting purchases based on the source of the weapon and age of the buyer. Buyers must be 21 or older to purchase firearms from a licensed dealer; unfortunately, those who are as young as 18 can still purchase a gun from a private, unlicensed party. Some states go one step further, implementing laws that prevent any sales, transfers, or ownership of firearms to anyone under 21-years-old.

Caitlin Moe and her colleagues compared handgun homicide rates over two decades among young adults living in states that adopted restrictive guidelines compared to those that relied on laxer federal law only.

Young adults perpetrated 13.1% of all 275,171 firearm homicides during the study time period. The national number of homicides decreased by half from 0.87 per 100,000 residents in 1995 to 0.44 per 100,000 in 2017. The figure on the left shows homicide rates in states that relied on federal law only. The figure on the right shows homicide rates in states with stricter minimum age laws. The orange lines demonstrate the average number of homicides per 100,000 people within each category. All states, regardless of restrictions, experienced similar rates of homicide since 1995.

Moe and her colleagues speculate that young adults might be circumventing restrictive laws to purchase handguns. They might, for example, illegally purchase a firearm on behalf of someone else. A separate study assessed licensed dealers’ willingness to allow these “straw purchases” despite the suggestion that the buyer intended to illegally transfer or sell the weapon to someone else. As many as one in five dealers still agreed to move forward with the sale.

Databyte via Moe CA, Haviland MJ, Bowen AG, Rowhani-Rahbar A, Rivara FP. Association of Minimum Age Laws for Handgun Purchase and Possession With Homicides Perpetrated by Young Adults Aged 18 to 20 Years. JAMA Pediatr. 2020;174(11):1056–1062.