Before the rage trolls drop down into the comments to tell me what an awful person I am, let me get out in front of the controversy by acknowledging that (a) I am an awful person and (b) I am going to be touching on some hot button issues here. I don’t expect anyone to agree with me, but I am not trying to stir up shit (this time). This is an honest exploration of the issues, and I welcome thoughtful feedback. That being said…
In the wake of the recent Parkland school shooting, several ideas have been advanced to tighten gun safety in the United States. Among these is raising the minimum purchase age for firearms to 21, a move which Dick’s Sporting Goods has already voluntarily taken. While I am not necessarily opposed to such a measure, it does lend itself to a broader question: when is a person an adult? The reason I ask is because there are a number of activities, even a few that are considered rights or responsibilities, that are age-restricted in our society, and it seems that the ones a person might find desirable are being more restricted as time goes on, while the ones that are less desirable only expand. Consider the following examples (all examples sourced from Wikipedia):
Alcohol: This one has varied, but has been somewhere between “age of majority”, 18, and 21 when there has been an established limit at all (mostly from the late 19th century on).
Tobacco: Again, the trend of setting an age restriction on these products seems to have started in the late 19th century in a few states, mostly in the 15-16 year old range, picking up speed in the mid-20th century. This generally changed to 18 in the late 20th century, with some states now moving toward 21 in the early 21st century.
Driving: This has remained a bit more consistent (most likely due to the relative innovation of automobiles and lag time in legislation), with states generally allowing learner’s permits between 15-16, restricted licenses between 16-17, and unrestricted licenses between 17-18.
Selective Service: Originally established 1917-1920, all men aged 21-30 were required to register; this was later raised to 45. From 1940-1947 all men aged 21-35 were required to register; in 1941 this was raised to 37. Starting in 1948 all men 18 or older had to register with the Selective Service; men aged 19-26 were eligible to be drafted at this time. In 1951 this age was lowered to 18 ½. In 1967 this range was changed to men aged 18 to 35. In 1975, “President Gerald R. Ford, whose own son, Steven Ford, had earlier failed to register for the draft as required, signed Proclamation 4360 (Terminating Registration Procedures Under Military Selective Service Act), eliminating the registration requirement for all 18- to 25-year-old male citizens.” Unfortunately, in 1980 Jimmy Carter brought it back for all 18-26 year old citizens. (Note: various deferments and exemptions have applied to all versions of the Selective Service.)
Voting – Prior to 1970, the legal voting age was 21. IN 1970, Richard Nixon extended the Voting Rights Act to cover age discrimination, which was challenged in Oregon v. Mitchell. The result of this case was that some states had two sets of voter rolls, one for federal elections (so that 18-20 year olds could vote) and one for state and local elections. The situation was resolved with the ratification of the 26th amendment, which made it unconstitutional to deny voting to anyone over 18 on the basis of age.
There are other examples, but these suffice. My question then is “when is someone an adult?” Is it when they turn 15 and get a learner’s permit? Perhaps at 21 when they can purchase alcohol? Or should we use the Selective Service standard, and decide that only men who are at least 18 years old are adults? (Sorry ladies, but at least you can’t be drafted.)
That last example, while deliberately provocative, also serves to further illustrate my point. The very reason the voting age is 18 instead of 21 is because of the Selective Service. The rallying cry of being “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” is certainly appealing, but there’s an innate fallacy in this thinking. By presupposing that 18 IS a valid age for conscription, the argument works. But what if I were to suggest that 15 was a valid age for conscription, so long as we likewise reduce the voting age to 15? After all, “old enough to fight, old enough to vote.” Clearly the idea is ridiculous on its face, which is exactly my point. Simply declaring someone capable of handling one responsibility because they have had another responsibility thrust upon them is not sufficient grounds to justify giving it to them.
Furthermore, why is someone sufficiently able to handle a car, a ballot, a cigarette (in some states), and sacrificing his life for his country, but not buying a drink or a gun? Again, I am not simply making an argument to lower the age of all of these to 18 or even lower; I am simply looking for a consistent and reasoned argument, either in favor of pegging them all at the same age or for keeping them all at different ages. If that one age should be 21, then why 21? What is special about that number instead of 18 or 25? If instead they should be spaced out, what is significant about each right that makes it less of a liberty available to a citizen of the United States (note that the last I checked I did see voting and the right to bear arms specifically covered in the Constitution; I did not see driving or tobacco. Alcohol was kind of a wash).
For myself, I don’t have a lot of great answers, but I would be most comfortable keeping the driving age as is due to the noted economic benefits it can engender, as well as the possibility of gradually introducing teenagers to expanded responsibility. Restricting the ownership of alcohol, tobacco and firearms to people over 21 would help reduce access to teenagers and others who are still developing both physically and mentally without being overly burdensome to adults. I would abolish the Selective Service and raise the voting age to 21; failing that I would expand the Selective Service to all US citizens and keep the voting age at 18, and anyone who is currently serving in the armed forces or who has received an honorable discharge from the armed forces would have all the rights and privileges accorded to a 21 year old citizen. It’s not a great solution, but it’s a little more logical, and it at least tries to deal with some of the issues.