By David Yamane
As the age at which American adults ought to be able to buy firearms is being discussed in the wake of Buffalo and Uvalde, I want to point to some data on the age at which Americans actually get their first guns.
TL:DR version . . .
(1) For respondents who say they currently or have ever owned a gun, the average age is 22.
(2) Men acquire their first gun at age 19 and women at age 27, on average.
(3) 37 percent of those who currently or have ever owned guns first got their own gun when they were under 18 years of age.
The data comes from the Pew Research Center’s 2017 report, America’s Complex Relationship With Guns. I doubt these numbers have shifted much in the past five years, but if you know of more recent data on this point, please let me know in the comments.
Pew Question: How old were you when you acquired your first gun?
Although Pew did not ask what motivated people to acquire their first gun, they did ask, “At what age did you first get your OWN gun.” For those who say they currently or have ever owned a gun, the average age is 22, which [as someone who never shot a gun until I was in my 40s] I find to be fairly young.
Broken down by gender, Pew finds that men acquire their first gun at age 19 on average, and women at age 27 on average. The dynamics of socialization into guns continue to differ considerably for men and women.
Looking outside the main report, we see that 37 percent of those who currently or have ever owned guns first got their OWN gun when they were under 18 years of age.
These data do not support a particular policy position on this issue. But policy should be informed by and take account of empirical reality. I find many people who rightfully want to “do something” about the problem of gun violence don’t have a good idea of how gun ownership works in everyday life for the tens of millions of non-problematic gun owners in America.
David Yamane is a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University. He is currently completing a book on American gun culture called Gun Curious and has previously discussed the 2021 National Firearms Survey on his YouTube channel “Light Over Heat.” Professor Yamane also runs the Gun Culture 2.0 blog and Twitter account (@gunculture2pt0).