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7 states have raised the purchase age for semi-automatic rifles. Advocates want Congress to force the other 43.

Increasing the minimum age to 21 nationwide could have a major impact on firearm purchases, but the proposal faces long odds of being included in any bipartisan deal.
Image: The NRA convention in Houston, Texas, on May 28, 2022.
The National Rifle Association convention in Houston on May 28. Mark Peterson / Redux Pictures

As lawmakers press ahead with bipartisan negotiations on gun legislation, advocates are urging them to include a provision that would increase the minimum purchase age nationwide for firearms like the ones used by 18-year-old gunmen in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York.

Federal legislation on that front would mean raising the minimum age from 18 to 21 for buyers of long guns like semi-automatic rifles in the overwhelming majority of states.

Only seven states — California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Vermont, Washington and, as of Monday, New York — have enacted laws raising the buying age to 21 for a class of firearms that includes shotguns, rifles and semi-automatic rifles, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Most enacted their laws in response to mass shootings in which young men used the weapons.

While several of the states face legal challenges over the restriction, advocates and lawmakers argue that congressional action would have a meaningful effect in the 43 other states.

“The impact would be huge. Any federal law that is an effective gun safety policy has a much broader impact than the law of any one state. Certainly, it would limit the number of people in that age range that could purchase firearms,” said Allison Anderman, Giffords’ senior counsel and director of local policy, who pointed to data showing that people ages 18 to 24 have disproportionately higher rates of mental illness and propensity to commit violent acts.

“It makes a lot of sense to ensure they can’t buy these firearms,” she said.

Under federal law, people 18 and older can buy shotguns, rifles and ammunition from licensed dealers in states where no higher minimum age is mandated. But federal law also sets a minimum age of 21 for the sale of handguns from licensed dealers.

It’s an apparent contradiction that gun safety advocates say is rooted in an outdated assumption that most gun violence was perpetrated by people using handguns and that rifles were used only for hunting.

Raising the age requirement to buy rifles, however, faces long odds against being included in a proposal a bipartisan group of lawmakers is crafting.

NBC News reported Monday that the provision is unlikely to be in a legislative package because of GOP opposition and that it most likely lacks the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the evenly split Senate. But sources said Tuesday that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was privately telling colleagues he is open to raising the age to 21 to purchase semi-automatic rifles, which gun control advocates often call "assault" rifles.

Doug Andres, a spokesman for McConnell, said, “Leader McConnell has not advocated for any specific policy.”

Still, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., poured cold water on the possibility of raising the age to buy such weapons to 21.

“I am staying within the confines of the discussion now, and that hasn’t entered the discussion,” Tillis told reporters Tuesday.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is helping lead the bipartisan negotiations in the Senate, told The New York Times this week that the bill lawmakers agree on “has to be incremental,” and in doing so he dismissed calls by President Joe Biden to raise the age to buy semi-automatic rifles to 21.

Biden has repeatedly pleaded with Congress to pass stricter gun control laws as a string of mass shootings have stunned the country in recent weeks. On May 14, an 18-year-old gunman killed 10 people at a Buffalo grocery store. Ten days later, another 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde.

The Uvalde shooter purchased two semi-automatic rifles at a gun store just days after his 18th birthday. The Buffalo shooter obtained his rifles legally, as well.

But raising the purchasing age alone wouldn’t solve any problems, said Anderman, of Giffords. She argued that it would be difficult to enforce without mandating background checks in private sales.

Federal law requires background checks for gun sales by licensed gun dealers but not for firearms sold by unlicensed dealers like those selling online and at gun shows.

“If there’s no background check, it’s difficult to enforce a minimum age law,” she said.

A measure that is more likely to advance in the Senate, Cornyn said in an interview Tuesday, is one that would enhance background checks to include juvenile criminal records and mandate that they be reported to a federal database.

“I think if this young man’s background had been part of the background check system, nobody would have ever believed that he should buy firearms,” Cornyn said, referring to the 18-year-old gunman who opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. “But because when he turned 18 essentially everything that happened before he was 18 was not available to the background check system, he was able to pass it.”

A focus on juvenile records could create a waiting period for buyers ages 18 to 21.

Senate Democrats have said they could get behind that.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a member of the Judiciary Committee, told CNN on Tuesday he would “certainly” support introducing a waiting period for 18- to 21-year-olds who try to buy such rifles.

House Democrats, meanwhile, have said it is crucial to raise the minimum purchase age for rifles to 21.

The Protecting Our Kids Act, a package of gun bills, would raise the age to 21 to buy semi-automatic rifles. House Democrats plan to take up the legislation Wednesday.

The package would also prohibit bump stocks, straw purchases and “ghost guns,” in addition to strengthening criminal background checks and closing the so-called Charleston loophole, which allows the sale of firearms to proceed if background checks aren’t completed within three days.

“This time has to be different, and we’re going to continue to pass commonsense bills out of the House, and we expect our Senate colleagues, particularly the Republicans, to join us in this effort,” Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, told MSNBC on Monday.

“I hope the Senate Republicans will agree to as many parts of these bills as they possibly can,” he added.

For states that have already taken steps to raise the purchasing age, some have a message for Congress: Follow our lead.

“We’re going to keep the pressure on in Congress,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, told reporters at a bill signing ceremony Monday.

"Many of our members from the New York delegation have already done the right thing, but we need them to provide a national response.”