Rhode Island Raises Rifle-Purchasing Minimum Age to 21

By: - June 22, 2022 12:00 am

High school students in Pawtucket, R.I., attend a rally after walking out of their schools in a protest against gun violence earlier this month. Rhode Island raised the age limit for buying rifles to 21. David Goldman/The Associated Press

Rhode Island has joined a growing list of states that have increased the minimum age to buy rifles, shotguns and semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21.

Democratic Gov. Dan McKee this week signed a package of gun measures passed after recent high-profile mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas. The package includes bills that ban high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, prohibit the open carry of loaded firearms in public and raise the age limit for purchasing firearms and ammunition to 21.

“We knew that this was the moment to take action, and lack of action was not an option, not an option for our kids or our loved ones,” McKee said at the signing ceremony at the State House. He vowed to continue to find ways to fight gun violence, potentially including a ban on AR-style, semi-automatic rifles.

While federal law prohibits people from buying handguns until they are 21, state law determines the minimum age for buying rifles and other long guns. Rhode Island joins California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Vermont and Washington with similar age limits.

Gunmen under the age of 21 have carried out some of the worst mass shootings in recent years, from Parkland, Florida, in 2018 to Indianapolis in 2021, as well as the massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde. Advocates for these measures argue that teenage adults lack the brain development to safely own a gun and make rational decisions.

The new age limit in Rhode Island has exemptions for police, state marshals and corrections officers, along with active-duty military members.

Last week, the state Senate Judiciary Committee initially rejected the proposed ban on high-capacity magazines. However, Democratic leaders in the state Senate used a procedural maneuver to fast-track the measure to the Senate floor, bypassing the committee—a move that Republicans heavily criticized.

Gun rights advocates have vowed to sue the state over the new laws.

The constitutionality of these age-limit measures is still in question. A blanket ban on gun purchases in California for adults under 21 was struck down by a federal appeals court earlier this year. The state is likely to appeal that ruling.

But gun control advocates cheered the new law in Rhode Island, saying the measure will save lives.

“This legislation is another step in making Rhode Island families safer in their own communities,” said Sean Holihan, state legislative director at Giffords, a gun safety organization founded by former U.S. Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011.

The measures also were supported by the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association.

“The signing of these three bills will enhance existing gun laws in a manner that properly balances individual constitutional rights and public safety,” said Narragansett Police Chief Sean Corrigan, the group’s president, in a statement.

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.