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Old Enough for a Gun, Too Young for TikTok: What's Legal for Teens in Your State?

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teens in front of an infographic | Illustration: Lex Villena; Midjourney

“You can die for your country, but you can’t buy a beer at a bar.” This classic example of incoherence in laws surrounding adult milestones has been the subject of many a rant from teens who consider themselves ready to join the ranks of the legally mature. (Probably a few drunken rants, even.) But the age cutoffs for alcohol and military service —both functionally set at the federal level—are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the utterly confusing mess of state laws governing teens and young adults. 

A new study from Bellwether pulls together age cutoffs in the 50 states for 36 different “adulting” variables, from work to guns to sex to school. The results are a fascinating window into the incoherence of American laws—and offer a look at our changing attitudes about maturity and individual responsibility.

Interestingly absent are any clear patterns based on partisan affiliations. While there were some correlations—on abortion, for instance—in most cases permissiveness or restrictiveness did not align with blue states or red states in a meaningful way. 

The case for coherence in laws governing teens is the same as it is for legal coherence generally: Forcing citizens to live under a complex patchwork of rules and regulations not unified by a logical or intuitive principle makes compliance more difficult and undermines respect for the law. 

With the rise of interest in restrictions on social media, for example, there may soon be states where teens could legally own a gun, get an abortion, or have a full-time job, yet not be permitted to do a little dance on TikTok or send a spicy text. 

As lawmakers become increasingly eager to play the role of parents, teachers, and bosses for teens and young adults, it’s worth taking a closer look at how well they’ve done in those roles so far.

Check out these striking examples of incoherence around the U.S.

Plus, check out your state to see how it stacks up. Clicking on each state reveals the cutoffs for specific laws.

To learn more about what went into the 36 variables across six different categories, check out Bellwether’s “The Edge of Seventeen“:

  • Sex, Porn, and Marriage: Ages of sexual consent, consent to marry, and the “floor” for marriage and exceptions, plus laws governing online porn, social media, and “sexting” among minors.
  • Habits, Vices, and Expression: Minimum ages for smoking marijuana, piercings, tattoos, and gambling.
  • Education, Employment, and Driving: Age of compulsory school attendance, employment including different types of jobs and rules governing parental consent, and driving from learner’s permits to full driving privileges.
  • Medical Issues: “Mature minor” laws governing general medical care, immunizations, sexually transmitted infection testing, and mental health, as well as abortion and laws governing medical treatment around gender identity.
  • Guns: Age to possess a handgun, possess a rifle or shotgun, and carry a concealed firearm.
  • Privacy and Punishment: Laws governing privacy matters, including at what age parents can no longer access the child’s academic or medical records, and if the state allows corporal punishment.

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