The father of Noah Tapia, 20, charged with shooting up the Bernalillo County government headquarters a few weeks ago, is a gun owner. The dad told the Journal he kept a couple of semi-automatic rifles in a safe at home until deputies confiscated them following his son’s alleged armed assault on taxpayer-owned building windows caused $45,000 in damage.
Michael Tapia said his son bought his own long gun, similar to those the sheriff’s office took, when he turned 18. “I can’t believe that they would sell an 18-year-old a rifle like that,” Michael Tapia said. “It’s just crazy.”
It may be crazy, but it’s not illegal.
While you have to be 19 to legally possess a handgun in New Mexico, there is no minimum age to possess rifles and shotguns here.
That needs to change. Notions of maturity and responsibility are used to set age limits for privileges like driving and voting, and 21 is the age for legally consuming alcohol. Those same kind of community standards should be applied to the purchase and ownership of long guns — including the rapid-firing semi-automatic variety — in New Mexico.
Our state’s lack of an age restriction on rifle ownership likely stems from respected and revered traditions centering on activities like hunting, ranching, marksmanship competitions and target practice and how the duties of responsible gun ownership are passed down through generations.
But other states have found ways to set minimum ages for purchase or possession of long guns and still permit young people to hunt, undergo firearms and hunting training and participate in shooting practice or competitions. Currently, 23 states (including a few conservative ones, like Oklahoma and Iowa) impose a minimum age for possession of rifles and shotguns, with various accommodations or exceptions that can include parental consent for possession by a teenager.
Different rules for young people and guns makes sense. The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence reports:
• Official federal crime statistics for 2019 showed 28,568 young people between the ages of 10 and 21 were arrested for weapons offenses, 26% of all weapons arrests for the year.
• According to FBI and federal Census Bureau information, 18- to 20-year olds make up 4% of the U.S. population but account for 17% of known homicide offenders.
• From 2009 to 2018, gun suicides by minors increased by 82%, data from the Centers for Disease Control indicates.
Those statistics are in addition to medical and scientific studies, and anecdotal evidence obvious among, well, just about the entire population, showing impulse control and judgment aren’t at their peaks in teens and young adults.
Albuquerque and New Mexico in general have become mired in a major crime problem highlighted by gun violence. Restricting purchases and possession of firearms, handguns as well as long guns, to people 21 and over would be an incremental step toward keeping guns out of the hands of people more likely to misuse them, on themselves or others. As noted, with caveats for hunting, arms training, etc.
This won’t solve the problem of gun violence among young people. As the Journal has opined before, New Mexico also needs a statute specifically requiring secure storage of firearms in the home, to help prevent tragedies like an Albuquerque middle-schooler’s on-campus fatal shooting of a fellow student using his father’s handgun earlier this year.
It should be acknowledged there are so many weapons in circulation in today’s America that a determined kid probably can find a way to get one, whatever the law may be. But we don’t need to help them do it. And we don’t want to stuff jail cells with young people whose only crime is gun possession — there needs to be alternative punishments and programs that try to steer would-be gunslingers down a better path.
But consider some well-known cases. The 19-year-old shooter who killed 17 in the Parkland school massacre in 2018 purchased his semi-automatic rifle legally. The racially motivated Texas man who killed 23 people and wounded another 23 at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 ordered his semi-automatic from overseas for delivery to a local store when he was age 20.
A 21-year-old minimum for purchase and possession of guns would place New Mexico on the cutting edge. But having the law on the side of requiring an extra measure of maturity and experience before undertaking gun ownership is the right way to go.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.