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Editorial: Rittenhouse case underscores why nationwide age floor of 21 is needed for guns

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Defense attorney Mark Richards asks Kenosha Police Detective Ben Antaramian to show him Kyle Rittenhouse's rifle and bullets before court begins during the Kyle Rittenhouse trial on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Defense attorney Mark Richards asks Kenosha Police Detective Ben Antaramian to show him Kyle Rittenhouse's rifle and bullets before court begins during the Kyle Rittenhouse trial on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (Mark Hertzberg/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

Since 1984, the nationwide legal drinking age has been 21 for good reasons. Young people’s brains are still developing, which affects their judgment and cognitive abilities. That, along with raging hormones, boosts the chances of impulsive decision-making. It’s a dumb idea to add alcohol to an already unstable mix. It makes even less sense to add firearms to that unstable mix. Perhaps it’s time to start applying the same age restrictions on firearms that federal law places on alcohol.

The Kyle Rittenhouse trial in Wisconsin underscores what happens when a fully loaded, semi-automatic firearm is placed in the hands of an impulsive kid. Video of Rittenhouse, who was 17 during 2020 riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin, depicts someone who clearly was thinking like a kid when he violated a curfew, misrepresented himself, lied about his age, and self-deployed with an AR-15-style assault rifle with a chambered round and at least 29 more rounds in the magazine.

Rittenhouse testified that he chose the AR-15 not because it provided better protection or was better at skeet shooting or hunting but because it “looked cool.”

Under Wisconsin law, the use of deadly force is not justified in property crimes such as the arson and destruction that occurred during the Kenosha protests. Even though multiple people among the protesters and vigilantes were carrying firearms, Rittenhouse — a kid with a gun he should not have had — is the only one who shot and killed anyone. Wisconsin law is clear that no one under age 18 is allowed to possess a handgun but is vague about whether it applies to long guns.

But common sense dictates that if youths under age 21 are not deemed to have adequate mental development to responsibly drink alcohol, they also should not be trusted to possess guns that can be fired on a whim and kill instantly. Common sense would dictate that a kid who chooses his gun based on what looks “cool” is not someone who deserves to be trusted to use that weapon responsibly.

Beyond the context of Kenosha, nationwide crime statistics, including St. Louis, point to thousands of needless tragedies each year at the hands of kids with guns. Between 2009 and 2018, gun suicides by minors increased by 82%, according to CDC statistics. The Giffords Law Center says that 18- to 20-year-olds comprise just 4% of the population but account for 17% of known homicide offenders. St. Louis homicide statistics reflect that same disproportion.

Whenever any limits on firearms ownership come into the public discussion, there’s a knee-jerk reaction to cite Second Amendment protections. But that’s a moot point, since most states place age limits on the purchase and possession of firearms. So the only question is: What’s the right age? If 21 is good enough for alcohol, it deserves to be the minimum age for firearms as well.



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(The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.)

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