How to Buy a Gun—Age Limits

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Last Updated on May 19, 2021.
How to Buy a Gun—Age Limits

If you’re thinking about buying a gun for the first time, and you’re a younger person, you may be wondering whether there are age restrictions. The simple answer is that yes, there are. But they vary.


Age Restrictions

How old do you have to be to buy a gun?” is one of the first questions a new shooter should ask before heading to a gun store. Your state may have deemed you mature and responsible enough to handle an automobile, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can buy a gun. 

The minimum age for purchasing a firearm depends on several variables, such as your state of residence, the type of firearm you want to buy, and from whom you intend to buy it. Private sellers or federally licensed firearms dealers are in different categories.


Minimum Age Requirements

One of the results of the Gun Control Act of 1968 is that if you want to buy a gun or ammunition from a gun store or sporting goods store — i.e., a federal firearms licensee (FFL) — you must meet minimum age requirements

If you want to buy a handgun, you need to be at least 21 years of age. An FFL cannot sell or transfer a handgun to a customer the FFL “knows or has reasonable cause to believe” is below that age. 

If, however, you want to buy a rifle or a shotgun, you must be at least 18 years of age. You’ll also need to provide proof of identification as part of the transaction process. The type of identification that an FFL can accept will also vary depending on the state. In California, for example, if you intend to use your driver’s license, it must be compliant with the REAL ID Act.

Ammunition

Purchasing ammunition from an FFL follows the same formula: 21 for handgun ammunition (pistol and revolver cartridges) and 18 for long-gun ammunition (rifle cartridges and shotgun shells). This can be complicated because there are rifles that fire pistol ammunition and handguns that fire rifle ammunition. In the ATF Federal Firearms Licensee Quick Reference and Best Practices Guide (p. 5 [7 in PDF]): 

“You may sell ammunition that is interchangeable between rifles and handguns to a buyer who is at least 18 years of age if you are satisfied that he or she will use the ammunition in a rifle.”

Thus, if you’re below the age of 21, and you need to purchase 9mm or .357 Magnum ammunition for your pistol-caliber carbine, you may have to demonstrate to the FFL your intent to use the ammunition in a rifle. 

An example of evidence could be the owner’s manual for your long gun, which specifies the caliber. Another option, if you can, is to bring the rifle to the store. Ideally, call the store beforehand and ask what the procedure is for bringing a firearm into the store. 

Private Sales

The aforementioned minimum-age requirements apply specifically to federally licensed firearms dealers. What about private sellers? Federally, the age limit for selling or transferring a handgun falls to 18

That is, an unlicensed person — not an FFL — can sell or transfer a handgun to an 18-year-old. The only exception is if the seller knows or has reasonable cause to believe the intended recipient is prohibited from possessing firearms. It is, however, illegal to sell or transfer a handgun to someone below the age of 18, except under limited circumstances.

There are no federal laws regarding the sale or transfer of long guns to persons of any age. There are state laws that govern the minimum age at which you can purchase these weapons or to whom you may sell them. In many states, there is no legal minimum age for possession, however. 

These laws can vary considerably. So it’s worth investigating the laws of your state, county, and city. 

Assault Weapons

Despite ongoing debate in Congress and among political pundits, the minimum age, federally, for purchasing a so-called assault weapon from an FFL remains 18, provided that the assault weapon is a rifle and not a handgun. 

There is no uniform definition for an “assault weapon” and no meaningful difference between an AR-15 and a Winchester Model 100 — they are both semi-automatic, gas-operated, magazine-fed rifles. However, according to that specific jurisdiction’s definition, some states have chosen to impose separate restrictions on the sale or possession of assault weapons. 

Gifts to Juveniles

According to the ATF, it is lawful for a parent or legal guardian to purchase a firearm as a gift for a juvenile—a person under 18. If you intend to transfer a handgun to your minor child, you must provide your son or daughter with written permission to carry it on private property. This transfer is lawful for what the ATF calls limited purposes. For example, as a requirement of employment, for hunting, and target practice. 

NFA Firearms

As with handguns and handgun ammunition, you must be at least 21 years of age to purchase or take possession of an NFA firearm. NFA firearms include short-barreled rifles, short-barreled shotguns, machine guns, and sound suppressors (silencers). 


State and Private Restrictions

States can impose higher age limits than the federal government. Some private retailers, such as Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods, have also chosen to impose separate and higher age requirements on purchasing long guns. 

Concealed Carry

The purchase of firearms isn’t the only arms-related practice that’s governed by minimum age requirements. You may be able to buy a handgun privately at 18 and from an FFL at 21, but whether you can legally carry it openly or concealed is another matter. In some states, the age at which you can apply for and receive a concealed carry permit is 18. 

In asking, “How old do you have to be to buy a gun?” you can see that it can be complicated.


Final Thoughts

Always ensure you comply with the law when you buy a gun or ammunition. Find out your local laws, and don’t be afraid to consult the proper authorities—e.g., the police or your local sheriff—or legal experts if you’re unsure of the specifics.