Shooting the AR15 William Wootton / Flicker (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The anguish caused by gun violence in America and the frustrations of the debate about it are enough to make a president weep. Between a passionately defended “right to bear arms” and the demand for “gun control” there seems to be no accommodation. Yet perhaps there is. Following President Obama’s tearful New Year resolution to introduce more controls on buying and selling, two academics came up with a simple and scientific solution: raise the gun age to 25.
In line with existing age limits on having a gun this suggestion is plausible: more maturity should mean less recklessness in the use of arms. According to UCLA law professor Adam Winkler and paediatrician Cara Natterson, people under 25 perpetrate nearly 50 percent of America’s gun violence, including a significant number of mass shootings. And about 38 percent of all suicides by people under 21 are committed with a gun.
At the same time there seems to be something arbitrary about the age of 25. We all know 16-year-olds who are quite mature, and maybe 36-year-olds who are not. So what really makes one an adult, someone ready to take charge of a potentially lethal weapon?
An adult brain, answer Winkler and Natterson.
Scientists, they point out, have been telling us for some time now that the brain is not grown up at 21, as the former age of majority might have led us to believe; it does not achieve its adult form until the mid-20s. Why? Because the pre-frontal cortex, the part that enables a person to weigh risks and benefits, control impulses and make responsible decisions, is the last part to mature. Meanwhile the young brain is ruled by the limbic system, or emotional centre, which drives impulsive behaviour like grabbing a gun when you want to get even with someone.
Well, the adolescent brain argument may be a useful tool for deciding public policy, like who can drive, drink and own a gun, but it can hardly settle the question of what makes an adult all by itself. What other factors come into play?
This was the subject of a long and thoughtful article in The Atlantic (also last month), the result of interviews with academics and the magazine’s readers. The academics acknowledge the brain science but disagree about its significance.
Psychologist Laurence Steinberg points out that some brain functions mature before others. Logical reasoning and planning, he says, are at adult levels by 16 and he sees no reason why young people at that age should not be able to vote. Behaviour control needs more time, but he thinks “the brain is pretty, at much done developing” by age 22 or 23. His view reflects the varying legal ages for drinking, driving, joining the military, watching “adult” movies and holding a job.
Milestones of adulthood
More important, however, are certain milestones that traditionally came in this order: completing school, getting a job, marrying, starting a family – what Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution have called “the success sequence”, in the context of marital happiness and prosperity. Some pundits dispute whether this was typical for more than a couple of decades post-World War II; what is beyond dispute, though, is that this sequence has been stretched and disrupted to the point of disappearing in large swaths of the population – and not only in America.
We hear increasingly of graduates who can’t get a job and boomerang back to their parents’ home, perhaps more than once; careers are hard to establish. Those without post-secondary qualifications are unemployed or working in low-paid jobs that hardly support a family. The average age of (first, it is now necessary to add) marriage is approaching 30; 20-somethings cohabit and break up, perhaps several times; marriage has become elusive for people down the social scale, although many women become mothers anyway. Starting a family is difficult when houses cost a fortune and both spouses have to (or want to) work. There are even indications that children are off the agenda altogether for some couples.
The reason for this is not just the extra years of education and training demanded by a more technically sophisticated job market, or other economic factors, but, as the Atlantic article notes, “because being a spouse or a parent seem to be less valued as necessary gateways to adulthood.” Social values have shifted – why, is another story.
Of course, marriage and parenthood have never been “necessary” to achieve adulthood. If that were so we would have to conclude that St Paul, Leonardo da Vinci, Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa had never really grown up. But committing oneself to a spouse and children is the ordinary way in which human beings have responded to the fundamental demands of adulthood: taking responsibility for oneself and for others.
Responsibility for others, particularly one’s own child, is a major theme of the Atlantic article, raised by experts and lay contributors alike.
A woman writes: “I think I only truly felt like and adult driving home from … hospital .. with our tiny, premature daughter. … [W]e were totally responsible for this baby’s existence, and it felt enormously overwhelming, as so grown up. Suddenly there was someone else to think of and consider in every decision you made.”
“I really felt like an adult when I held my child in my arms for the first time,” says a male reader. “Before this event, I felt like an adult on and off throughout my 20s and early 30s, but never really had a grasp of the thing.”
But it is not only babies that awaken the self-giving adult in us. Taking care of aged or sick parents is something several Atlantic readers mentioned. People working in the caring professions – health and social services – and education of the young, have a golden opportunity to go the extra mile in taking responsibility for others. Indeed, anyone who does their job or plays their role in society in a spirit of service is doing something “grown up”.
Some people grasp such opportunities when they are young; others take longer. Does it matter how long? Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett thinks that after 18 one enters a phase of “emerging adulthood” that may last the whole of one’s 20s. In a sense he is right, adulthood does not come all at once. But his concept suggests low expectations of young people, who may waste many years if they are not encouraged to set adult goals and strive for them.
Purpose and identity
Anthony Burrow, an assistant professor of human development at Cornell University, provides a more helpful insight. He has led research which found that commitment to a purpose or mission in life was associated with well-being among college students. Having a purpose is dependent, in turn, on discovering one’s identity – the main task of adolescence, according to notable psychologist Erik Erikson.
Who am I?
Today that question often keeps young people looking inwards and leads them along such uncharted paths paths as changing their sex. Divided communities, fractured families and absence of religious faith remove the social beacons which proved positive, on the whole, for earlier generations. Coincidentally, the mental health of adolescents has become a major issue, with one in three in the US said to suffer from depression.
Isn’t the disintegration of social values, rather than the discovery of the adolescent brain, the reason why America would now need to discuss raising the gun age, and what makes a person an adult? If it is, prohibiting the sale of firearms to under-25s (good luck with that) and inventing new phases of human development are unlikely to make much difference either to gun crime or to the difficulties of young people who, as the Atlantic article puts it, are “flailing”.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.