Minors and Firearms: A Divided Nation

  • Date:
  • July 19, 2019

In my last blog series, I discussed laws currently in the Repository of Historical Gun Laws that relate to the category “Felons, Foreigners and Others Deemed Dangerous By the State.”

I have begun wading into a new category on the Repository over the past few weeks: “Possession By, Use of, and Sales to Minors.” Recently, I organized these laws into three groups: (1) laws that address all firearms, (2) laws that address concealable weapons or weapons worn concealed, and (3) laws that address only pistols and revolvers. I translated these groups onto a map, and what emerged was a hard line across the country, dividing the map into the North and the South.

According to the Repository, northern states tended to enact laws falling in the first group—those that limited minors’ access to all firearms. For instance, from 1873 to 1912, Chicago (1873),  New Jersey (1885), New York (1885),  Nebraska (1895), and Vermont (1912) forbade the sale and/or giving of all firearms to minors of various ages, among other prohibitions (New York had an exception for those with the consent of a police magistrate, and Vermont had an exception for parents as well as instructors). Similarly, New Haven (CT) (1881), Massachusetts (1882), and Rhode Island (1883) outlawed the sale of any “gun, pistol, or other mechanical contrivance arranged for the explosion of [any cartridge or fixed ammunition of which fulminate is a component part]” to minors under fifteen and sixteen without a parent’s consent (later St. Louis (1887) enacted a nearly identical law). Michigan (1883) forbade people from selling, giving, or furnishing “any cartridge of any form or material, or any pistol, gun, or other mechanical contrivance, specially arranged or designated for the explosion of the same” to children under thirteen, and Pennsylvania (1881) outlawed the sale of canons, pistols, revolvers, and any other such deadly weapons to minors under sixteen.

Meanwhile, according to the Repository, southern states tended to pass laws in groups two and three—limiting minors’ access either to weapons capable of being concealed or pistols specifically.  Kentucky (exception for parent) (1860), Mississippi (1878), and Louisiana (1890) forbade people from giving or selling weapons capable of being concealed to minors of various ages. Alabama (1856), Lexington (Va) (1869), Georgia (1876), North Carolina (1893), and Texas (1897) outlawed giving, selling, lending, and/or furnishing minors of various ages with a pistol (with exceptions not relevant here).  West Virginia (1882) similarly forbade selling to or furnishing a person under the age of twenty-one with a pistol, in addition to forbidding the sale of a “dirk, bowie knife, razor, slung shot, billy, metallic or other false knuckles, or any other dangerous or deadly weapon of like kind or character.”

The Repository does include some exceptions to this divide. In the North, for instance, Idaho (1909) enacted a law that restricted the sale of only concealable weapons to minors. Notably, however, Idaho (1888) already restricted the carrying of all deadly weapons, including firearms, in cities, towns, and villages. As such, minors’ access to all firearms was possibly already somewhat limited. The South also had at least one exception: in 1913 North Carolina enacted a law that stated that parents could not permit children under twelve to possess any firearm.

According to the Repository, areas that are along the divide between the North and the South are a bit mixed in what they forbid.  Fresno (CA) (1896) and Utah (1905) restricted the sale of or giving of all firearms to minors of various ages. On the other hand, Nevada (1881) prohibited minors from carrying only concealed weapons and Indiana (1875) forbade the sale of only concealed weapons to minors.

The Repository is not comprehensive, so the question remains: is there a divide, or are we missing relevant laws? If there is a divide, why did the divide exist? Does it represent a divergence in philosophy on gun regulation? Or is the divide coincidental, and the northern laws represent a temporal shift rather than a geographic one?

[Ed. Note: This post about gun laws in the Center’s Repository of Historical Gun Laws is written by Center research assistant Catie Carberry. This post, like the Repository, is exemplary and not exhaustive.]