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Does the call to raise the minimum age for gun purchases in the US, and the mental maturity argument behind it, have military implications? Should it?

teen brain

Consider this question in the context an active duty US military force that is forty-four percent age twenty-five or younger, a US Marine Corp with thirty-seven percent of the force age eighteen to twenty-two, and a US Army (by far the largest component of the US military) with nearly ten percent of its force under the age of twenty.

Consider also that the first peacetime draft in America, passed with wide margins in both the US House and Senate September 1940, registered men ages 21 to 36. It was not until over two years later, with the US deeply engaged in World War II, that the draft age was expanded to include ages 18 to 37. Likewise the initial WWI draft set the earliest age of conscription at 21; in fact, it was not until the third iteration of the WWI draft registration that the age of earliest conscription was reduced to 18. This would appear to suggest that historically the consensus has been that the appropriate age for military service has been age 21, and age 18 has been the age necessitated by extreme demand in times of war when manning requirements could not be met otherwise.

As the nation responds to the ongoing tragedy of school shootings in America, there is a growing call for imposing higher minimum age requirements for the legal purchase and possession of firearms generally, and military-style "assault weapons" specifically.

We allow voting and military service at age 18 (17 to join military with parental permission) yet cannot consume alcohol in any of the 50 states or buy tobacco in five US states until age 21. As a parent of three licensed teens on my auto insurance, I am acutely and painfully aware of the risk and associated costs my auto insurance provider judges to be commensurate with placing my 17-, 18-, and 19-year-old behind the wheel. Yet all three of these adolescent aged children, statistically judged by my insurance company to be a high-risk, are of "military age".

Are the varying legal age limits in society soundly based or are there ethical inconsistencies driven more by expediency than sound societal judgement? Does the fact that society struggles with defining an age of majority (i.e. legal adulthood) have implications on the ethical age at which someone should be deemed responsible and capable of being a member our nation's military and projection of deadly force?

The voting age for Americans was twenty-one for federal offices until the adoption of the 26th Amendment in 1971.The argument, in the midst of an unpopular war with conscripted service, was that if you are old enough to be drafted and sent off to war, you are old enough to exercise the right to choose the representatives who may send you off to war. Was this argument backwards? Should the question have been, "if you are not deemed to be an adult and fully competent to vote (not considered a fully competent and rational adult) should a nation be arming you and sending you to war?"

The push to raise the legal age for the purchase of a firearms, and the question of mental maturity implicit in the effort to address irrational and impulsive gun related mass killings in the US, suggests that the argument behind the 26th amendment was indeed inverse to the issue at hand. As a passage from Shakespeare’s "The Winter's Tale" makes clear, the realization that teens to early twenty-somethings are not necessarily clear thinking rational actors is not a newly emerged perception:

"I would there were no age between sixteen and
three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the
rest; for there is nothing in the between but
getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry,
stealing, fighting--Hark you now! Would any but
these boiled brains of nineteen and two-and-twenty
hunt this weather?"

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Yet it is this age of "these boiled brains" from which the majority of our armed forces are recruited.

Science backs the idea that the adolescent brain is irrational and impulsive. “Adolescents' brains seem to bias their decision-making capabilities in the direction of favoring short-term benefits, even when these benefits are weighed against potential long-term detriments”. "The findings synthesized here indicate that increased risk-taking behavior in adolescence is associated with different developmental trajectories of the subcortical pleasure and cortical control regions" - specifically, the net evidence, from multiple studies of activity in the adolescent brain point to a hyperactive rewards centers and hypoactive - not fully developed or incompletely wired - reasoning and impulse control. Or in summary “the next time you find yourself wondering, "Teenagers! Why do they do that?", look to their adolescent brains"

None of this suggests a lack of incredible intelligence and capability among adolescents; but for some duties and responsibilities, it does not matter how well they score on the SAT or ACT if their brains inherently are not capable of excelling at good judgement.

I joined the US Military initially just after turning nineteen years of age. In retrospect, I recognize that I probably lacked maturity and fully objective rational reasoning as a late teen, and credit my service for helping me become the generally (my wife insists on the qualifier -generally) rational adult I have become. At some point in each of their lives I have urged every one of my wife's and my six children join the US military - reserve, guard, or active, believing it would help them mature, grow and become better adults in the future (and, of course as a parent we hoped it would help pay for college!). While I do believe military service brings valuable character-building experience to any young person, and I have argued for the value of universal service, I acknowledge that there are ethical questions to be asked when populating a lethal force with inherently irrational impulsive actors.

I am not personally advocating for an increase in the earliest age of enlistment in the US military, partly because I know that military service can be the only pathway to success for so many young people and partly because of the mere practicality. After all, it would be exceedingly difficult to fill the ranks of our fighting forces if 17 through 20-year olds were not available to recruiters.

As expressed in the Economist's article on minimal military age, it would require a significant increase in pay to recruit only ages beyond adolescence, noting "adults tend to find recruitment campaigns based on macho athletic fantasies and evocations of the World of Warcraft experience somewhat less convincing than teenagers do."

Likewise, the promises of education benefits and career skills training would be less appealing to those already four plus years post high school graduation and likely either in a job or saddled with young adult issues, stumbles and life choices that have rendered them ineligible for military service.

Despite these practical realities, ethical considerations around the appropriate earliest age for military service will continue and may gain force over time.

ronald leach

Ron Leach