America needs to decide when adulthood really begins


During a heated exchange with NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch at last week’s CNN Town Hall in Parkland, Fla., Sheriff Scott Israel pronounced: “18-year olds should never have a rifle.”

President Trump seemed to agree. Earlier that day at his own town hall, the president called for raising the legal age of purchase for semiautomatic guns to 21.

What made these declarations stand out is that for a long time 18 meant the start of official adulthood in America. Wherever you might come down in our current gun-control debate, the bigger question is when, finally, does a child become an adult in America?

These suggestions of raising the age for gun purchases came during the same week that the widely praised and forceful outpouring of civic engagement by Stoneman Douglas HS students led commentators to argue the voting age should be lowered to 16. The students, so articulate about their grief and the changes they hope to see in their country, seemed like ideal voters.

We have long complained about the extended adolescence our children enjoy, but perhaps the problem is that it’s the grown-ups muddling the time frame. We send mixed messages about when adulthood begins and what will be expected once it arrives.

It wasn’t always this way. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Allan Metcalf notes that “until the teen age was invented, that was the goal of children: to become adult as soon as possible, to escape the limitations of childhood.”

But somewhere along the way we came up with this middle ground and, to our detriment, this middle ground is seen as the brightest, happiest time — old enough to have fun, young enough to avoid real responsibility.

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