Two components are consistently present during mass shootings, including the shooting last month at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Shooters are virtually always young males, 16 to 24 years old. The weapon of choice is usually a semi-automatic pistol or rifle. Knowing these key ingredients of most school shootings gives us an advantage in solving this disturbing American social malady. Yet, calls from President Biden and others to raise the minimum age for purchasing a gun from 18 to 21 fall short of the mark. Direct observations, research on masculinity and violence, and neuroscience all point us toward prohibiting the sale or possession of semi-automatic weapons—and possibly all firearms—to anyone under 25 years old.
Why target age 25? Because brain and developmental research indicates that male brains have greater variability in structure and development and may not be completely mature until age 25. After age 25, males become less impulsive and more capable of moral decision-making. Automobile insurance companies recognize this truth with hefty rate reductions after males turn 25. In addition, due to American socialization pressures around masculinity, older boys and young men are especially reactive to threats to their perceived manhood. These reactions often include acts of violence designed to restore a sense of masculine honor.
Anyone paying attention knows young American males are not doing well. They’re lost. They’re angry. They’re confused. They have few constructive rituals to help them become men. Manhood may be overrated and outdated, but boys need to strive for something. Becoming a man is a tried and true tradition that’s hard to escape—if only because the media pushes it so hard. Boys need to man-up, but what does that even mean? Join the military? Smoke cigars? Take stupid risks? Watch American football? Hunt? Fish? Play violent video games? Retreat to a “man cave,” Join the Proud Boys? Grow beards? Deny COVID? Fight? Have sex? Get revenge? Never apologize or show weakness? Demean women and gays? Buy an AR-15?
Pro-gun extremists will complain that prohibiting young adults access to semi-automatic weapons is unconstitutional. They fear a supposed slippery slope to complete gun control. They assert (correctly) that the overwhelming vast majority of young males would never storm a school and murder elementary school children and teachers. Prohibiting the sale or possession of semi-automatic weapons to everyone under 25 would take away the so-called right to purchase and possess specific firearms from law-abiding U.S. citizens.
Whether we, as a society, should sacrifice the rights of the law-abiding has merit and is worth debate. But in this case, we’re talking about the practical problem of dead children and teachers. In such situations, we need bold action, based on scientific data and common sense. We can, and will, continue the debate over gun control. In the immediate, we would ask young people to sacrifice some of their rights, but this would hardly be the first time we’ve asked young Americans to make sacrifices for the common good.
We need better social and emotional learning for young males. We need better fathering and mentoring. We need to broaden what it means to become a man. We need the media to stop broadcasting, re-broadcasting, and paying tribute to testosterone-inspired solutions like the idea that more guns will increase safety. More guns in homes make homes more dangerous. The media should avoid privileging the more guns concept (including arming teachers) as a viable solution. We also need to attend to the acute needs of our lost boys through attention, counseling, healthier rituals, better role-modeling, and the basics: adequate food, housing, education, and recreational opportunities.
In a rational world we would stop giving young males easy access to semi-automatic weapons and invest heavily in their emotional and moral development. Let’s put the academic debates aside, follow the evidence, embrace the science, and work together to solve this uniquely American problem. Raising the age people can own guns in this country to 21 does not go far enough.