We have a decent sense of what those policies might be. The people drawn to this kind of terrorism are overwhelmingly of a type — young, troubled, socially awkward men. They are not necessarily gun experts, prepared to retrofit any weapon they acquire for maximal lethality, nor are they necessarily experts at navigating black markets to acquire weapons they can’t get legally. And they often expose their instability and intentions in advance.
Yes, some will overcome all obstacles or strike without warning. But many others, including the Uvalde shooter, seem potentially deterrable at the point of weapons acquisition. As the University of Alabama criminologist Adam Lankford puts it, in a recent interview with The Dispatch, “if you make buying a firearm more difficult for people who find it difficult to do anything socially, that makes a difference.”
Those difference-making difficulties could be imposed via restrictions that target age and weapon type at once. Or they could be imposed through laws encouraging pre-emptive action by parties who might see the threat coming in advance. Age requirements for the purchase of AR-15s and other semiautomatic rifles fall into the first category; red-flag laws, which enable interventions that temporarily strip dangerous-seeming people of their guns, are the best example of the second approach.
I’m open to both options, but my current policy preference is slightly different. I worry that red-flag laws demand too much of bystanders and family members, while offering too little in cases where the potential shooter has cut himself off from normal contact. I’m not sure an age limit of 21 covers enough of the young male danger zone, and I also understand the objections of gun rights advocates to a system that demands that a 20-year-old enroll himself for potential military service but refuses him adult rights of self-defense.
So I would like to see experiments with age-based impediments rather than full restrictions — allowing would-be gun purchasers 25 and under the same rights of ownership as 40- or 60-year-olds, but with more substantial screenings before a purchase. Not just a criminal-background check, in other words, but some kind of basic social or psychological screening, combining a mental-health check, a social-media audit and testimonials from two competent adults — all subject to the same appeals process as a well-designed red-flag law.
This is an alteration and refinement of an earlier suggestion I floated following the Parkland shooting, which would have staggered the age at which various guns become available for legal purchase. Of course it generates its own set of objections, practical and constitutional; every potential gun regulation does. And if you fear our government enough, there will always be a reason to imagine that to yield anything is to yield everything — that today’s screening for early-20-something gun owners will become tomorrow’s tacit ban on conservatives buying guns, to pick the most obvious possible response.
But that’s a counsel of futility for responding to almost any threat, as long as our politics are polarized and trust in government stays low. And I’m not interested in futility, any more than I’m interested in the forms of right-wing overreaction or left-wing fantasy politics criticized above.