Yes, 18-Year-Olds Can Own Guns, And They Do

I have posted a number of times before about the Pew Research Center’s 2017 survey of gun owners. The report, America’s Complex Relationship With Guns, ought to be studied closely by all involved in the current wave of our ongoing debates over guns in American society.

As people debate whether to raise the minimum age for purchasing rifles from 18 to 21, it might be helpful to know that the average age at which current or past gun owners first got their own gun is 22. But the average age for those who grew up with guns in their households is 20, and looking just at men the average age drops to 19.

Screen cap of Pew Research Center report, p. 25.

Pew has not yet released the raw data, so we don’t know the average age of first gun acquisition for men who grew up in households with guns, but there is good reason to believe that it is even lower than 19 years of age.

Pew reports that of those who have owned a gun at some point in their lives, 37 percent got their own first gun when they were under 18 years of age. Banning the purchase of rifles by those under 21 years of age will not prevent children or young adults from owning them.

Moreover, of those who have ever shot a gun — 72% of Americans, according to Pew — 63% were under 18 years of age when they first did so. Owning and shooting guns are a normal part of life, including childhood, for many Americans.

Screen cap of Pew Research Center topline report, p. 11. Available at

To be sure, one gun in the hands of a person with bad intentions can do a great deal of harm. Consequently, an infinitesimally small percentage of guns (0.035%) are responsible for all of the negative outcomes (homicides, suicides, non-fatal injuries) associated with guns in any given year. At the same time, almost no gun owning households (99.788%) have any negative outcomes with their firearms.

This dual reality of guns, along with their normality in many people’s (especially men’s) childhoods, ought to be kept in mind by those debating their role and future in our society.



  1. “At the same time, almost no gun owning households (99.788%) have any negative outcomes with their firearms.”

    When I read this, I just had a thought. Before on this blog you have mentioned how carrying a gun (or just owning one for defense) is a low-change high-stakes risk analysis. In other words, the probability of needing to use the gun to defend yourself is low, but if you do, the stakes are high (likely your life). We can flip this around to look at gun crime. Most guns and gun-owners do not commit crimes, so the probability is low. However, the stakes are high once again, as seen by the number of people who can be killed in a mass murder even perpetrated with a gun, as well as the (reportedly) increased lethality of suicide when a gun is the instrument. So perhaps the argument for a complete gun confiscation (assuming it would work to remove all guns from the criminal element) is as cogent as the argument to carry a gun everywhere. I’m not sure if I got that right, since I haven’t thought it through carefully.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve considered that possibility as well. My thoughts on that are constitutional arguments and philosophical arguments shift the balance into the pro-gunner’s favor. The majority have the right to bear arms for self-defense, and some tiny minority shouldn’t take that away. In a similar way, a few people who say crazy shit shouldn’t result in far more innocent people being punished for their actions, i.e. by abolishing the 1st Amendment.

      Liked by 1 person

    • “Flipping it” doesn’t really result in a parallel situation.

      My choice to carry can, in practice, harm no one but myself (accidents involving unrelated third parties being harmed by misuse of a legally carried firearm are low enough to be hard to track). Banning guns, which are documented to be used for self-defense by people who would be less or unable to effectively do so with any other method, would inherently harm others.

      For suicide, firearms are lethal, but no “more lethal” than a competent hanging or jump from sufficient height. Which are the two most popular methods used by people outside the US in areas with tighter firearm restrictions and often higher suicide rates. Firearms may make an impulsive choice final, but I am unconvinced by the literature that “impulsive choices” are that common.

      Additionally, there is a Right involved. Any restriction on that right needs to demonstrate an ability to actually accomplish its stated goal, either via evidence or at least through a logical examination of the mechanics of how it would do so in practice. There’s very little evidence gun bans have worked to reduce overall harms anywhere to a statistically significant degree, certainly not to the degree necessary to repeal a fundamental right, and when you look at the situation “on the ground” it’s hard to see how it could..

      Liked by 1 person

    • The arguments approach being equally cogent only if one treats the risks as having solely mathematical value, with no inherent associated meaning. Additionally, the argument on complete gun confiscation completely leaves out the high risk of gun owners fighting back.

      I probably could have phrased it better, but by “inherent associated meaning,” I mean that mass murder and self-defense are completely different in nature, value, and action. The probability vs. consequence matrices (to use a risk management concept) for these two are not on the same page, IMO.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The gun confiscation argument does not realize the fire they are playing with. The 2A, and the armed people are the first line of defense for the Constitution. If they get that past into law it will be a disaster. I’m convinced it will start another Civil War on political lines. Look at a national map showing how counties voted in 2016. On just color alone something like 80% or so of the map is red. And guess where all most all the legal guns are. And guess where all most all the Illegal guns are? In the remaining blue areas where gun control is the strictest and murder and robbery rates are at there highest.

    Professor been following your blog for some time. And I like how you bring out facts and statistics. However the left (were gun confiscation is centered) are not interested in facts. Except where they can cherry pick them to support there position. And then lie about them. The ’18 school shootings in 2018′ is an example. So is that alleged ‘town hall’ that CNN ambushed Dana and the Senator with.

    Seosaidh operating many things is a low-change high-stakes risk analysis. Driving a car. Operating a table or circular or chain saw. Flying a plane or helicopter. A gun is no different. What lowers the high-stakes in all of those activities is training and practice. You don’t start F-22 or B-2 pilots with that aircraft. No you start with trainers and lower performance aircraft.


  3. Way too much heavy breathing going on right now in the USA over this. David’s point is a valid one, i.e., 99.8% of gun owning households are being asked to shoulder the burden for the problems created by the 0.2 %. We ask…why us?

    Part of my bone to pick with Parkland is that I get the impression that this is a pretty upscale community (news reports talk about the area being festooned with gated communities but maybe that’s normal in Florida) and so these kids are more worthy than others. I wonder if all these social do-gooders would be wrapping themselves in the flag of purity if it was an inner city school getting shot up. After all, why weren’t Moms Demanding Action when the bodies were being piled high in Chi-raq.

    Interesting take here.

    As far as first acquisition. 15 for me. A single barrel break open 20 gauge. Got my Ithaca Mod 37 at 16. Most states allow hunting at that age, so kids are gonna have access to guns. I understand the concern with an 18 yr old with a clean record, an anti-social media mindset, and a grudge walking out of a store with an AK or AR. What do we do? Normal guns at 18 and evil, black rifles at 21?

    Liked by 2 people

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