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If you’re 18, the law says you can’t buy a handgun. But you can buy a handgun without breaking the law. This paradox exists thanks to a little-noticed manifestation of the so-called gun show loophole, which keeps government regulations out of private gun sales.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 made it illegal for a gun dealer to sell handgun to anyone under the age of 21. “Sales of handguns and ammunition for handguns are limited to persons 21 years of age and older,” the ATF’s official Federal Firearms Regulations Reference Guide states. But the agency’s regulations only apply to federally licensed firearms dealers, not to non-professional private sellers.
“A high school senior in most states can go to a gun show, go online, or any other place that they might find a private seller and lawfully purchase a gun that they couldn’t otherwise at a gun dealer,” explained David Chipman, a former ATF special agent who now works with Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
“That is correct,” confirmed George Semonick of the ATF. “Under federal law, it’s not unlawful for an 18-year-old to posses a handgun,” Semonick explained to Salon, though some states have their own age requirements for handgun possession.
While Congress will soon consider legislation to close the part of the private seller loophole that lets them sell guns without background checks, the handgun age restriction loophole has so far not been specifically addressed or even much noticed. “I’m shocked that the media hasn’t jumped on this,” Chipman told Salon.
But the Internet is way ahead of Washington (and the media) and can helpfully explain this nuance in the gun laws to anyone looking for answers. “How should I go about buying a pistol? I’m 18 years old?” one user asked on Yahoo’s question forum. There are plenty of informed responses: “You cannot buy from a dealer if you are under 21. You can buy from a private sale in many states, but not all states,” one read.
Another: “To be honest your best bet is to place a WTB [want to buy] classified, make sure you are up front about your age because lots of Face to Face sellers won’t sell to someone under 21.” A third: “Basically you have to put an ad in your paper saying you would like to purchase one of these or pick it up at a gun show.”
A separate user wrote that he or she had “heard from a lot of virginia residents that you can buy a gun at 18 years old in virginia at a gun show without a license i also know a couple of people that have bought from gun shows.”
The topic has come up on numerous gun forums as well, where commenters can give sophisticated explanations of the dichotomy between licensed dealers and private sellers. “I hate when people don’t know that you can sell a handgun to a 19 year old in a private purchase,” one commenter complained. Another responded: “Unfortunately, it will be very hard to convince something is legal if they feel it is illegal … All you can do is print out 18 USC 922(x) and the ‘providing firearms to juveniles or minors’ statutes in your state.”
“It’s quite legal for a nonprofessional to sell it to the 18-to-20-year-old, and for the 18-to-20-year-old to buy it, even if the nonprofessional knows or suspects that the buyer is under 21,” wrote libertarian-leaning lawyer Eugene Volokh on his popular blog back in 2010. Volokh notes that while the 18-to-20-year-old “can’t have someone buy it specifically for him, since that would be conspiracy to make a false statement, given that the straw purchaser would have to falsely assert that the gun is for the straw purchaser himself,” he can buy it from a private seller. (Although, one 18-year-old in Pennsylvania found a state-specific loophole that let his father legally purchase a handgun for him.)
Laws vary from state to state and while some make it illegal for people under the age of 21 to purchase or possess a handgun at all, others go by federal law, which deals only with sales from gun dealers. An 18-to-20-year-old cannot, however, obtain a concealed carry license in any state, as they all set the threshold at 21.
The ATF’s Semonick explained that this loophole sometimes creates unexpected complications. For instance, if an 18-year-old brings their legally purchased handgun into a gun store for repairs, the licensed dealer is not allowed to return the gun, as that would violate federal prohibiting the transfer of a handgun from a dealer to someone under 21-years-old.
“As a law enforcement professional, this was one of my concerns,” former ATF agent Chipman said. “It shouldn’t be easier to go buy three Glocks than to buy a case of Bud. But that’s the case.”
Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.More Alex Seitz-Wald.