Teens, guns and brain maturity | Opinion


I read with dismay that the congressional committee tasked with constructing a beginning solution to our gun violence problem failed to address the age at which young people can buy assault-type weapons. Their heavy reliance on mental health and school security is important but fails to take into consideration the developing minds of young people. Instead, this omission is designed to protect the profits of the gun industry, and those in Congress who benefit from their funding and financial largess, not our citizens, especially not our children.

The NRA’s statement that any agreement to restrict assault-type weapons from 18- to 21-year-olds infringes on people’s “fundamental right to protect themselves and their loved ones,” is absurd. One does not need an AR-15 for routine protection. To restrict assault-type weapons for this age group does not stop them from hunting or target shooting and it does not infringe on others’ right to protect themselves.


Under most laws, young people are recognized as adults at age 18. But emerging science about brain development over the last decade is clear; most young people don’t reach cognitive/emotional maturity until about the age of 25. Of course, there are exceptions, some teens mature early, and even then, their development can be uneven. Society’s variation in age-based definitions of maturity is at most arbitrary. The car rental and auto insurance industries understood cognitive maturity many years ago.

Neuroscientists have discovered through brain scans that the brain is not fully mature at 16 when we are allowed to drive, or at 18 when we are allowed to vote and buy assault-type weapons, or at age 21 when we are allowed to drink. Rather, it is closer to age 25, the age one is allowed to rent an automobile and insurance rates drop to adult levels. These industries guided by their pocketbooks understand the risk young minds may present.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain is normally overactive in a healthy teenager — much more so than in adults. It is the maturing of this brain region that helps one control impulses and to plan and organize behavior appropriately. While physically and intellectually mature, this part of the brain involved in keeping emotional, impulsive responses in check is not yet fully developed. There is now a wide consensus among neuroscientists that an 18-year-old is not the same person she or he will be at age 21 or 25, just as a 13-year-old is not the same person as he or she will be at 18.

They don’t look the same, feel the same, act the same, and most importantly, they don’t think the same. The cognitive changes that happen between the ages of 18 and 25 are a continuation of the process that begins around puberty, and 18-year-olds are only about halfway through that process. What is lagging is not only the ability to control impulses, to plan and organize behavior, but also to predict consequences clearly and consistently without prompting from an adult. Further, there is no other time in a person’s life when they are more enamored with thrill-seeking and are more susceptible to the contagion of peer pressure.

This cognitive immaturity provides clues to the youthful appetite for novelty and a tendency to act on impulse — often without regard to the risks involved. It’s somewhat like having an overactive accelerator and an underactive brake system. Along with physical maturity and prowess, these factors are undoubtedly principal reasons why 18-to-24-year-olds make the best frontline soldiers in times of war.

The deal that Congress is making is meant to appease the public, protect the gun industry and its political pressure and financing, and vilify those who suffer from mental illness. We cannot predict who will commit mass murder any more than Governor Abbott of Texas ridiculously said that he could predict who will commit rape before it happens so that law enforcement can arrest them.

The best way to reduce the number of young people who commit such terrible offenses is to limit their access to such weapons. Will this stop all murders and suicides by gunfire? Of course not. But it may stop some confused, disturbed young people from killing others, and themselves.

Ask yourself, “Why do we accept so little progress from our political leaders?” This half-hearted deal that the political parties are putting forth is meant to appease us, not to protect us.

Dr. Anthony Butto is the director of the Courtyard Counseling Center. He lives in Selinsgrove.

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