This topic has fascinated me for awhile, and it has come rushing to the front of things with the current debates happening in Congress about guns. I have no intention of wading into any debates about guns, and am not going to share any of my opinions on the topic. The only reason I mention them is that is that they provide a current example of the issue I do have interest in discussing – the age of adulthood.
Gun purchases is the currently hot example of the debate on age. The context of the moment is this: Should we restrict gun purchases to those at least twenty-one years of age. Which brings me back to the question of just what, exactly, is an adult?
In one sense, the description of an adult is easy: it is someone who is not a minor. There – aren’t you glad you asked? The concepts of “minority” and “majority” were used at common law in England, a legal system which the United States largely adopted. Once upon a time the common law recognized that those under 7 were pure children, while those between 7 and 14 were older and were to be held somewhat more responsible for their actions. Those over 14 were presumed to have the ability to act like adults, but the full age of majority was 21.
This was important in deciding to what standard a youth should be held certain activities, because an individual was always responsible for his own actions. The only question is whether the youth was of an age to appreciate the risks of certain conduct. Determining negligence in the handling of horses or farm implements were common contexts in the old common law cases. In other words, there are some risks that a 6 year old should not be expected to understand, but that a 14 year old should. This is most likely the traditional basis for an age between 14 and 21 when a driver’s license should issue – the common age of 16 is old enough that the kid should have an understanding of the risks of handling a car and therefore be held responsible for errors in judgment.
The example above – the 16 year old driver – was most likely based originally on ideas about liability and responsibility rather than the exercise of rights. Only when governments began to issue licenses for driving did a person’s rights come into play. There is old case law in Indiana from the 1930’s that held that whether a youth had a driver’s license or not had no bearing on his liability for an accident – he was either negligent or he was not, and therefore whether that young driver was licensed or not was irrelevant.
The actual “age of majority” was a different concept from that above. Majority was when individuals were actual, legal adults, and could do things like own property and enter into legal contracts. Below that age of majority (be it 18, 21 or something else) a person was (and is) below the age for the exercise of all legal rights. To this day, a minor is not legally capable of owning property. You know that savings account your parents opened for you when you were 10 years old? It was actually theirs and not yours.
At some point, we in the U.S. began messing with the concept of majority, coming up with different ages for different purposes. Compulsory schooling is over at 18 in most places now, as is the ability to vote and to be subject to the military draft. But the right to buy and consume alcoholic beverages is not reached until 21. And this is not a modern phenomenon – the “age of consent” above which a man could not be charged with statutory rape has bounced all around from 10 to 18, depending on the location and era. If you ever wondered what the term “Sweet Sixteen originally meant, now you know.
But here is my question: If a person is allowed to vote, own property, marry and do virtually every other thing that an adult can do (to the point that “adulthood” is almost universally described legally as Age 18 these days) then by what right does one group of adults gang up on a smaller, younger group of adults to say “You are not allowed to …” whatever that thing is, such as the purchase of a Colt 45 (of either the liquid or the solid variety).
I am fully aware of the general state of knowledge that the human brain is still developing for most people at age 18, and I understand that there are good reasons why some activities should be reserved for those with a few more years behind them. But when we boil down the concept to its essence, what is to stop a majority of a legislative body (virtually all of whom will be over 35) from passing a law outlawing certain activities for someone who is 22 or 36 or even 29?
It seems to me that the separation of some phases of adulthood from other phases of adulthood does not work really well with our legal framework and our conceptions of individual liberty. I guess my conclusion is that I don’t really care at what age a person becomes an adult – 16, 18, 21 or something else. Having moved well beyond any of those ages, I have horse in the race, so to speak. But what I do care about is how we come to that decision.
One of the biggest problems in law is that so many statutes are passed, rules enacted or cases decided because of a particular outcry. Something bad happens and there is a great human urge to “do something.” There is an old expression – hard cases make bad law. It seems to me that a larger debate should be had – what is the age of majority going to be? Restricting rights to someone below that age is an easy and non-controversial matter. Making that decision for all people and for all purposes is something we all have at least some control over, if only through the political process. But restricting the rights of someone who is an adult (especially rights guaranteed in the Constitution) purely on the basis of age is the kind of thing that is sure to be decided eventually by 9 people in black robes. And that is a process that we have no control over whatsoever.
Graphic illustrative of the human aging process found online at drvidyahattangadi.com