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How old do you have to be to buy a gun? The answer varies in each state

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

How old should you have to be to buy a gun? It's a question on many Americans' minds after another mass shooting by a young man; in this case, the 18-year-old charged in the killing of 10 people in Buffalo last Saturday. And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, it's becoming a question for the courts.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: When it comes to people between the ages of 18 and 21, gun laws are all over the map. They can't buy handguns from licensed dealers, though private sales are allowed in most states. And as to long guns - that's shotguns, rifles, AR-15s - there's no federal ban, but some states have recently put up restrictions.

Adam Winkler is a UCLA law professor who writes about gun policy, and he says the rules for young adults are in flux right now.

ADAM WINKLER: Well, there's a big fight brewing over these restrictions on guns for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds because the courts are in the midst of a great expansion of Second Amendment gun rights.

KASTE: On one side, you have states such as Florida, Washington and California, which have responded to mass shootings by raising the age to buy certain rifles to 21. On the other side, you have gun rights groups which are challenging those limits. Just last week, a panel of three federal judges in California overturned that state's new higher age for semiautomatic rifles, though the state may appeal.

ANTHONY PORTANTINO: And I hope they appeal it. It makes sense to appeal. I mean, this is a fight that is worth fighting. And again, look what happened in Buffalo.

KASTE: Anthony Portantino is the state senator who authored California's ban. When it comes to guns, he thinks it's just common sense to draw a distinction between 18 and 21.

PORTANTINO: You have to be 25 to rent a car. You have to be 21 to drink. Why would we put a semiautomatic rifle in the hands of a teenager?

KASTE: But to people in that age group who own guns, this feels like discrimination.

EVAN JONES: Well, I would point out that drinking and driving aren't constitutionally protected.

KASTE: Evan Jones is a gun enthusiast in Texas who just recently turned 22.

JONES: Eighteen to 21-year-olds, they have all the same rights and responsibilities as any other adult, and it's not fair to single out and deprive them of one right.

KASTE: But historically, the courts do limit rights where the state can show a compelling interest. In this case, there's the evidence from brain science. Megan Ranney is an emergency physician and academic dean at the School of Public Health at Brown University.

MEGAN RANNEY: We know from lots of studies around motor vehicles and drinking and other common types of injuries that this age group is still developing its frontal lobe, impulse control, judgment and is more likely to take risky actions that lead to injuries.

KASTE: But Matt Larosiere says brain science doesn't justify taking away the right to self-defense with a gun from a whole age group. He's with the Firearms Policy Coalition, which led the challenge to California's law. He argues that younger adults may actually rely on that right more than older people.

MATT LAROSIERE: There are plenty of young adults in America who are quite often lower-income people or otherwise disadvantaged, not just financially, and those are the same people who are most likely to be violently victimized. They are thus the same people who are most likely to need a effective mechanism to protect themselves.

KASTE: This legal tension has yet to be resolved. Just last year, a federal judge upheld Florida's new age-based law limiting gun sales. But he also called that age question, quote, "a constitutional no man's land."

We may get some more clarity on this from a pending Supreme Court case about gun control in New York. That case also weighs individual rights against societal risk. And if the ruling is broad enough, legal experts say it could tell us how the new conservative majority might come down on the idea of limiting gun rights by age.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.