Jun 2, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Mass shooters are getting younger

Picture of protesters who support gun control

Photo: Katie McTiernan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The two mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas, both perpetrated by 18-year-olds, have highlighted a disturbing reality: The shooters are getting younger.

The big picture: Most of the deadliest shootings in the U.S. since 2018 were committed by men who were 21 or younger.

  • Between the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, committed by a 20-year-old, and late 2017, killers were between the ages of 26 and 64. All of them were men.
  • When looking at school shootings specifically, killers tend to be younger, PolitiFact reports.
  • Nearly half of homicides in 2020 were committed by people 29 and under, according to the most recent FBI data on the matter.
  • Wednesday's shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was committed by a man in his 40s who was targeting a doctor he blamed for his back pain.

The problem seems to be getting worse. Per the New York Times, only two of the deadliest mass shootings from 1949 to 2017 were committed by gunmen under 21. The two were the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

"We see two clusters when it comes to mass shooters, people in their 40s who commit workplace type shootings, and a very big cluster of young people — 18, 19, 20, 21 — who seem to get caught up in the social contagion of killing,” Jillian Peterson, a criminal justice professor who helped found the Violence Project, told the New York Times.

State of play: Under federal law, a person has to be 18 or older to buy a shotgun or a rifle, though some states have a higher limit of 21. Additionally, there is no law preventing teens or even kids from being given a rifle as a gift.

Part of the argument for raising the minimum age is based on mounting scientific evidence that the brains of males, especially the frontal lobe that controls executive function and decision-making, do not finish developing until they are roughly 25 years old, or even a few years later.

  • In fact, some researchers consider the span between the ages of 10 and 24 as adolescence.

What's happening: Some lawmakers have expressed openness to raising the minimum age to 21. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) saying that it's a "no-brainer" to increase it because "the human brain develops and matures a lot between the age of 18 and 21."

  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a bill last month that would raise the minimum age to buy assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines to 21.
  • "It makes no sense that it’s illegal for someone under 21 to buy a handgun or even a beer, yet can legally buy an assault weapon," Feinstein said in a statement.
Minimum age to purchase handguns, by state
Data: Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence; Cartogram: Jacque Schrag/Axios

There is no one concrete reason as to what creates a mass shooter. Mental health issues or "easy access to firearms" might prompt a person into wanting to engage in a shooting, according to an analysis from a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Go deeper: A list of America's 23 deadliest modern mass shootings

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