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Free Minds & Free Markets

Guns. Booze. War. Abortion. Voting. How Old Is Old Enough?

It is too soon to know whether the Parkland massacre will clarify public attitudes about guns. But we can safely bet it will do nothing to clarify public attitudes about maturity. If anything, the episode has only muddled things further.

In the aftermath of the Valentine's Day slaughter, some Parkland students have transformed into gun-control activists. This has elicited sympathetic coverage in the establishment press, polite criticism from the conservative press, and vicious attacks and loony conspiracies from the troglodyte right.

Nobody is suggesting the students qualify as experts on public policy. The respectful hearing they have received has more to do with their moral authority as young, traumatized, and idealistic survivors of a horrific event. (And, to be frank, it helps that they have staked out a position with which most of the media already agree.)

At the same time, the shooting itself—carried out by a 19-year-old—has elicited proposals to raise the age at which a person can buy a rifle to 21. The notion that teenagers can be wise enough to teach their elders about firearms, but never wise enough to own them, is just one of the ways in which American attitudes about adolescence lack explicable precision.

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The U.S. already has raised the drinking age to 21. But as is often noted, you need be only 18 to enlist in the armed forces—i.e., to volunteer for missions that could entail not only losing your own life but taking others'.

The age of enlistment offers two rationales for not raising the age at which someone can buy a gun. If you're mature enough to enlist, goes one, then you're mature enough to own a gun. (Rebuttal: Enlistees' lives are regimented to a ridiculous degree. Unlike civilian 18-year-olds, they're not being given free rein.)

The second rationale holds that if you are old enough to sacrifice your life in America's defense, then you should have access to all of America's constitutional rights. Indeed, that was largely the rationale behind lowering the voting age once the age of conscription had been lowered.

Of course, nobody ever died because somebody picked up a ballot in a moment of anger. Nor has an improperly or accidentally used ballot ever killed anyone. People die from gunfire under those conditions all the time. So there might be some sense in leaving the voting age at 18 but raising the age of access to devices that can kill.

Except that most states let teenagers drive without supervision at age 16—and sometimes earlier—even though the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety points out that "teenage drivers have the highest crash risk per mile traveled." In fact, the Institute says, the fatal crash rate for drivers age 16-19 is "nearly three times as high as the rate for drivers 20 and over."

So teens are mature enough to handle 3,000-pound machines despite the great risk of harm that entails. Yet colleges across the country strive to make themselves "safe spaces" not only for teenagers but for young adults as well—by imposing speech codes, warning students against "microaggressions," and caterings to those whose tender feelings are often theatrically wounded by the mere presence somewhere on campus of people with whom they disagree.

Well. If young adults have not yet developed the capacity to confront difficult ideas, then surely they have not yet developed the capacity to vote, either—let alone to hold forth in public about complicated issues of public policy.

And yet: Just about every state has provisions that allow the judicial system to try minors as adults. Seventeen states permit transferring children as young as 14 from juvenile to criminal court; six states permit it for 13-year-olds; and 19 states permit it for children 12 and younger.

At the same time, 37 states require a minor who wants to get an abortion to involve at least one parent in the decision—and 26 require parental consent. So, for instance, Mississippi and Wyoming consider 17-year-olds too young to make abortion decisions themselves, but they think 13-year-olds are mature enough to be tried as adults for any criminal offense. Virginia requires an adult relative's permission for abortion but treats 14-year-olds as adults for certain felonies.

So if young people today are confused, you can't blame them. Their parents aren't doing much better.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Photo Credit: Erin Scott/Polaris/Newscom

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  • sarcasmic||

    The hobbits had it right. 33.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    You know what else the hobbits had right?

  • DatCrazyMongoose||

    Eleventieth?

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Birthday presents.

  • Charles Easterly||

    You know what else the hobbits had right?

    Is one of the correct answers the Non-Aggression Axiom?

    In the Middle of the Earth, in the land of Shire
    Lives a brave little hobbit whom we all admire
    With his long, wooden pipe
    Fuzzy, wooly toes
    He lives in a hobbit-hole and everybody knows him

    [Chorus]
    Bilbo (Bilbo!), Bilbo Baggins
    He's only three feet tall
    Bilbo (Bilbo!), Bilbo Baggins
    The bravest little hobbit of 'em all!

    Now, hobbits are peace-loving folks, you know
    They're never in a hurry and they take things slow
    They don't like to travel away from home
    They just like to eat and be left alone!

    But one day Bilbo was asked to go
    On a big adventure to the caves below
    To help some dwarves get back their gold
    That was stolen by a dragon in the days of old.

  • Conchfritters||

    Is that the song Spock sang?

  • operagost||

    Hitler?

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Second breakfast?

  • sarcasmic||

    Winner winner second breakfast if it's chicken dinner!

  • ||

    Second Breakfast, none of this "brunch" b.s.

  • IceTrey||

    Pipe-weed.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Hobbit's were only middle aged at 120.

  • Liberty Lover||

    Life Insurance has it right, that would be 100.

  • Scotticus Finch||

    Nor has an improperly or accidentally used ballot ever killed anyone.

    I venture to say that more US lives have been destroyed or lost from improper use of ballots than from improper use of firearms.

  • DatCrazyMongoose||

    ^^^ This! It's just that voters gets to fallaciously absolve themselves from the outcomes of their votes because they're technically not the ones actually carrying out the destruction.

  • operagost||

    For example, those who voted for Wilson or LB Johnson, and maybe Buchanan.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    ... Nancy Pelosi...

  • DJK||

    Damn it. I was just about to comment on this. You win.

  • Griffin3||

    Yeah, that stuck out like a sore thumb in the article. One could say ballots wielded with uncaring led to all of Sheriff Israel's policies ...

  • GILMORE™||

    "Guns. Booze. War. Abortion. Voting. How Old Is Old Enough?"

    You seem to have left out the most-obvious category.

    If you can't legally fuck it, it shouldn't have the right to vote.

    The entire thing hinges on 'when do we give people the right to make their own choices'. If we restrict ANY, then it presumes limited agency because of immaturity.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    If you can't legally fuck it, it shouldn't have the right to vote.

    Of course, Crusty believes in the contrapositive.

    Tony believes in the inverse.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "If you can't legally fuck it, it shouldn't have the right to vote."

    There are no states with the age of unrestricted consent for sex above 18, so yes, if it has the right to vote, you can fuck it.

    In fact a plurality of states have the age of unrestricted consent for sex at 16. A few less have the age of consent at 17 and only a hand full of states have set the age of consent as high as 18.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "If you can't legally fuck it, it shouldn't have the right to vote."

    There are no states with the age of unrestricted consent for sex above 18, so yes, if it has the right to vote, you can fuck it.

    In fact a plurality of states have the age of unrestricted consent for sex at 16. A few less have the age of consent at 17 and only a hand full of states have set the age of consent as high as 18.

  • GILMORE™||

    ""a plurality of states have the age of unrestricted consent for sex at 16.""

    I bet you think this is an "A-ha!" moment, because you were too-stupid to read the following sentence:

    " If we restrict ANY [choices], then it presumes limited agency because of immaturity."

    if those states also allow guns, booze, war, and abortion, you'd have a point

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "I bet you think this is an "A-ha!" moment, because you were too-stupid to read the following sentence:"

    Yes, I read that sentence, and it does absolutely nothing to cancel the epic stupidity of: "If you can't legally fuck it, it shouldn't have the right to vote."

  • hpearce||

    I have always been suspicious of "subjective" laws -like you become an adult at the age of whatever

    I have tried considering other options like a contract between child and parent as to when a person becomes a completely independent person, but handling this in the interaction with other people still doesn't seem that plausible to me.

    This one of few ideas of my libertarianism that still confounds me

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    I am ok with these laws, as long as a teenager can get an exemption by demonstrating responsibility. Let him or her go in front of a jury of adults and demonstrate responsibility in handling a gun, a ballot, or a beer. Or all three at the same time by chugging a six pack and then shooting his selections into the ballot at 30 yards.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Or, in front of a commission of friends and family, and have his foreskin sliced off.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I hate to break it to you, but you don't get circumcised at the bar mitzvah.

  • Rat on a train||

    But anyone that does should be allowed a drink after.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    The reason is it's not ethically sound, but a simple concession to practicality. I do think that a sign of a good lay is clarity, leave the leeway up to the judge in sentencing. The legislature should aim for clear and easily applicable.

  • Zeb||

    a sign of a good lay is clarity

    I'm assuming that was a typo. Had to think about that for a minute.

  • Dan S.||

    Since the ability to sign binding contracts is also one of the rights given to adults, signing a contract saying when you will receive those rights is problematic. Then again, when i was 17, I signed a contract for a student loan, one provision of which was that i waived the right to renounce it on the grounds that I was underage when I signed it. So go figure.

  • Longtobefree||

    Being willing to sign a student loan is proof you are not mature enough to sign a student loan. It shows you do not have the resources to pay for tuition, yet you are going to spend all your time doing something other than generating revenue to repay the loan. So the only thing less wise than taking out a student loan is granting one.

  • p3orion||

    "When I was 17, I signed a contract for a student loan,one provision of which was that I waived the right to renounce it on the grounds that I was underage when I signed it."

    But was that provision legally enforceable either, since you were underage when you signed it?

  • Mickey Rat||

    How do you judge something like that objectively, and who do you trust to do it? It is premised on there being noncontroversial objective criteria that everyone accepts. If not, you are giving considerable power to some bureaucratic or judicial authority to make that determination for everyone on when they are fully invested with personal responsibily rather than presume someone is capable when they reach a certain age, barring radical evidence to the contrary.

  • Zeb||

    How about people mind their own damn business and people keep their own children in line?

    I know that doesn't address every case, but it gets you pretty close.

    If I have to pick one age, I'll just say 16.

  • Dan S.||

    How far people can go to "keep their own children in line" is a question in itself. The notion that parents can order their children around arbitrarily never seemed right to me when I was a kid, and frankly it still doesn't. But most people seem to accept it.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Eh. I'd personally be in favor of some sort of "license system" where for different things there's a "default age" where you'll get that right regardless† with the option to "prove themselves" for specific tasks earlier. For different tasks the test would be different‡ and suited to the test. It would mean having a mess of licenses (or possibly one license with multiple designations), but it would allow a more "customized" set of rights based on what a person has actually demonstrated, with the safeguard that all that mess goes away once you're old enough.

    But in the real world, you have to worry over who would administer the tests, who would set the content, and who would be doing so in ten years. So in theory I like the idea, but it's problematic in the real world to fine-tune and granulize the system such.
    ________
    †So say, anyone can vote, drink beer, drive a car, buy a gun, get an abortion, do porn, marry or whatever at the age of 25.
    ‡For example, most drugs would require demonstrating knowledge about efficacy, half-life, LD-50, impairment, addiction, etc. and so-on, possibly with doing a dose under observed conditions to ensure the minor seeking the license has real experience to go along with academic experience. Driving license would probably require a driver's test. Birth control and abortion would require knowledge about efficacy, side-effects, etc. and so-on.

  • EscherEnigma||

    All that said, we sort of do have a "contract between child and parent as to when a person becomes a completely independent person". It's called "emancipation", and is available for minor children that want to be legally free of their parents before they're 18, most often in the cases of abuse or neglect. And if a kid doesn't seek it before eighteen, it effectively happens at that age anyway.

  • BigChiefWahoo||

    Lets face it this proposed age-raise for buying rifles is predicated on the fact that 18, 19, and 20 year-olds constitute a very small slice of the electorate, even if they all got out and voted, which they usually don't. The advocates of this age-raise cynically calculate that it will not, can not hurt them politically, so why not put the burden on the youth? Really courageous politics.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Of course, nobody ever died because somebody picked up a ballot in a moment of anger.

    Yeah. Um, I beg to differ. One could even make an argument that more have died because of that than because of many other reasons.

  • Zeb||

    Voting is an act of aggression. Sort of.

  • Eidde||

    "Of course, nobody ever died because somebody picked up a ballot in a moment of anger. Nor has an improperly or accidentally used ballot ever killed anyone."

    I'm going to join the pile-on against this.

    Ballots lead to people getting elected, leading to policies being enacted, which in some cases (wars, WoD, etc.) leads to people dying.

  • Mickey Rat||

    That quote is exceptionally ignorant of history.

    Maybe no one has died directly as the result of a single vote, but genocides have been carried out indirectly as a cumulative result of many ill advised individual votes

  • John||

    How about we dispense with age requirements and only let those who are employed and pay taxes vote? If you don't pay taxes, you don't have enough skin in the game to be voting.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Based on that logic, John, government employees like you shouldn't be allowed to vote either, since the "taxes" you pay are just a withholding of money the government already collected from someone else.

  • John||

    I agree. I would happily disenfranchise myself to create that rule. If you want to vote, don't work for the government.

  • CE||

    Or give people one vote per net ten thousand dollars per year paid in taxes.

  • MasterThief||

    When I worked for the government (local government, at that) I also thought that both paying taxes and voting seemed like ridiculous examples of double dipping. Likewise, I don't understand how people who get tax refunds far beyond the taxes they pay get to vote like they are citizens with equivalent skin in the game. Being supported by the government (whether in jail, on welfare, or an employee thereof) seems like a fair reason to lose the right to vote so long as that relationship exists. I'm not sure how far I'd go in supporting this since it is a slippery slope to "only land owners can vote" but it seems like a decent starting principle.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    The logical extension to that is that you vote how much taxes you pay. It encourages the rich to pay more taxes, it encourages the poor to work harder to have more say, and it's logical.

  • chemjeff||

    Well, for starters, not all questions of public policy revolve around taxes.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Are they enforceable? Then there are taxes. If not, then they are toothless and a waste of time.

    Government's sole purpose is to enforce its monopoly on violence. That uses taxes.

  • chemjeff||

    But many of the questions revolve around whether or how the government should use its monopoly on violence, not on how much it costs to do so. Just take gun control as one topical example. No one is really arguing against gun control because "it would cost too much" or "taxes would have to be raised to pay for it". Instead it's a fundamental question of liberty.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Fine, you enact your policy, we taxpayers will vote on funding it. Satisfied?

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Such as...?

  • Zeb||

    I like it. I've often thought that at the local level especially (and especially where I live where property taxes fund all of local government), only tax payers should get a vote. The people who actually own the town should be the ones deciding how it spends money.

    It's probably a much harder sell at higher levels of government because you have criminal laws and regulations that significantly affect everyone. The better solution there is probably to make it so more people are net tax payers and fewer people are the recipients of tax money (and ultimately reduce taxes a lot).

  • ClassicLiberal||

    The problem I have always had with this argument is that even if I rent the property, and do not own it, I am paying property tax. I may not be paying it directly, but I know for a fact that part of my rent goes to pay that. So essentially the land owner is using money they got from me to pass on to the tax man. It is not money entirely out of their pocket or generosity.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Um, no. We already have a problem with politicians choosing their voters. Since those same politicians are in charge of tax law, that gives them even more power to disenfranchise folks. Think that you're doing too poorly among the poor? Just raise the limit before folks start paying taxes, or increase the EIC or something, and bam, you just pushed your detractors out of the tax pool.

    It'd also create a weird incentive... you want to not tax folks who don't support you, but tax the folks that do? I'm not sure how this would work out, but I'm pretty sure the answer is "very very messy".

    Regarding more votes for taxes paid, that brings up that California pays more taxes per capita then Texas and that DC residents pay more taxes per capita then anyone else in the country. Now DC is a weird case 'cause it's all city, no rural, but the point remains, a lot of "liberal" places pay a lot more taxes then a lot of "conservative" places.

    But hey, as long as we're going with pie-in-the-sky changes, I'd propose going back to more of the Articles of Confederation style of funding the federal government: the states chose how much they send, and the fed deals with it. That doesn't really solve the "problem", but does push it out of federal purview and puts the pocket book closer to the voters then it's been for a century.

  • ClassicLiberal||

    They are not paying more in federal taxes, so therefor Californians do not get a higher vote than Texans. They only pay more in taxes to their own state.

  • silver.||

    But how old do I have to be?!

  • chemjeff||

    There is nothing special about some magic age of majority. Why not make the achievement of full rights contingent on, say, graduating highschool?

  • Rhywun||

    Why not college or grad school? What's so special about high school?

  • chemjeff||

    Well, high school is the end of the mandatory education regime. Theoretically, after finishing it, graduates are supposed to be "well-rounded citizens".

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    And they usually are, especially in West Virginia.

  • Zeb||

    Graduate high school or turns 18 seems like it might be a good standard. At least it gives some fairly objective standard for considering younger people adults.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    I never graduated, you educationist pig.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    We'd be better if with full rights coming based on a certification of responsibility cooling from one parent/guardian, and two community members (religious, educational, etc). Or joining the military.

  • Rebel Scum||

    So teens are mature enough to handle 3,000-pound machines despite the great risk of harm that entails.

    Yea but guns are like totally designed to kill. So we must absolutely overlook the curious fact that guns are only used in a fifth of murders as there are people killed in automotive collisions.

  • Rebel Scum||

    fifth of murders

    This should read more along the lines of five times as many people are killed in automotive collisions as are murdered with firearms...

  • CE||

    What about SUVs? Those things are dangerous.

  • BigChiefWahoo||

    Rifles of any description are used in only 3% of all homicides, so how much would raising the age to buy a rifle, by three years, actually help?

  • Inigo Montoya||

    "The notion that teenagers can be wise enough to teach their elders about firearms, but never wise enough to own them, is just one of the ways in which American attitudes about adolescence lack explicable precision."

    If only this were limited to adolescence! There is a general trend to remove all agency from individual people in favor of letting those in authority decide for them.

    Example: I heard a news story yesterday about victims of sex trafficking where it was very clear 20 seconds into the report that anyone who engages in prostitution has been sex-trafficked, even if it's by themselves. (I.e., no pimp or other third party involved.) And then there's that teen guy who took a nude selfie and was charged with production of child porn. Pretty soon, I guess emos who cut themselves will be charged with assault and battery, and masturbation will be considered sexual assault unless you file a consent form at the local police precinct before each act.

    What's amazing is that people are actually demanding government step in and make more decisions for individuals rather than letting people accept responsibility for whatever choices they make.

  • silver.||

    "What's amazing is that people are actually demanding government step in and make more decisions for individuals rather than letting people accept responsibility for whatever choices they make."

    This is exactly how I feel. Even adults want the government to tell them what they can do as well as what they cannot do. My generation seems pretty coddled. It's like everyone has low-grade narcissistic personality disorder where they can do no wrong, and every personal failure must have a root cause beyond themselves. I do it, too! I have to really focus to remember to admit fault. It's very eerie.

  • MasterThief||

    I'm on the older end of the overly broad "millenial" generation and have to agree with this. For the most part, I have more of a gen-x mindset of work hard and take responsibility. Still, I sometimes catch myself eager to blame others for my own failings. I suppose that comes with being raised as the excessive ego-boosting and helicopter parenting and schooling really started ramping up.

  • Nuwanda||

    If only this were limited to adolescence! There is a general trend to remove all agency from individual people in favor of letting those in authority decide for them.

    This is an excellent perspective. The article title should have been, "Let's not debate the age of consent, let's start treating adults as adults."

    It's like a shell game. Get the folks exercised over whether young Jenny can indulge in sodomy at the age of 16 meanwhile passing hundreds of new regulations every year telling those same folks how to go about even the most trivial aspects of their lives. Nice tactic. And it works.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "Nobody is suggesting the students qualify as experts on public policy. The respectful hearing they have received has more to do with their moral authority as young, traumatized, and idealistic survivors of a horrific event."

    Except that being a young survivor of a horrific event doesn't actually confer any extra special "moral authority" on them compared to the "moral authority" of anyone else who happens to be taking up space on the planet.

    That notion is just another load of pure bullshit thrown into the mix of all the other pure bullshit that is being spouted about the whole thing.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    Agreed.

    And there's also a good argument to be made that any legislation produced in the wake of a terrible event, when emotions are running high, tends to be very poorly thought-out and can do more harm than good.

    There's a reason that logic and calm, rational judgement leads to better decision-making than knee-jerk reactions and feelz.

  • EscherEnigma||

    It's been two weeks. When is "long enough"? And what do we do if there's another "terrible event" before then?

  • Gilbert Martin||

    Left out of the article is that "children" up through the age of 26 are just too young to be responsible for arranging their own health insurance so they are allowed to stay on their parent's health insurance policies.

  • CE||

    Of course, nobody ever died because somebody picked up a ballot in a moment of anger.

    Unless they lived in a US drone target country, after people voted for Bush, Obama or Trump in a moment of anger instead of the Libertarian candidate.

  • CE||

    I would just set all the age of majority rules to 19, to keep the vices and such out of high school. Hey, it works for the NBA, why not the US Armed Forces?

    Better yet, end high school a year or 2 earlier and lower it to 18 or 17 for everything. And abolish draft registration.

  • mpercy||

    At least get rid of the glaring sexism of male-only registration. Get women to register or get rid of it entirely (preferably).

  • mpercy||

    The NFL requires three years out of high school.

  • IceTrey||

    ^This for our present situation.

  • p3orion||

    "I would just set all the age of majority rules to 19, to keep the vices and such out of high school."

    Or do the opposite, and raise the voting age back up to 21. Or higher.

  • mpercy||

    These kids were eating Tide pods for fun a few weeks ago. Now we're supposed to take their tearful statements as sound Constitutional policy discussions?

    These are the "fragile generation" of bubble-wrapped kids who've never been told "no" in their lives. Who expect their entire world to be a "safe space" that revolves around ensuring that their intersectionality is not violated by unkind words or even the presence of people not exactly like them.

    They can't be trusted with making good decisions about alcohol until they're 21.

    They can't be trusted with making good decisions about tobacco until they're 21.

    They can't be trusted with making good decisions about handguns until they're 21. Add rifles to that if they get their way.

    Hell, they can't even be trusted to make good decisions about their own health insurance until they're 26 (Obamacare's own hat-tip toward continued infantilization of young adults).

    But they can be trusted to vote? They can be trusted to drive cars?

    There should be a single age of majority for everything.

  • General_Tso||

    Hear hear!

  • IceTrey||

    The libertarian answer is no age requirements on anything.

  • Nuwanda||

    Bullshit. The Anarchist answer is no age requirements on anything.

    Are you smarter than a 5th grader? As an Anarchist, maybe not, but you can fuck one.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Arbitrary rules are the best rules.

  • Rat on a train||

    you need be only 18 to enlist in the armed forces


    I enlisted at 17.

  • Empress Trudy||

    Make the age of adulthood universally 30 across the board for everything.

  • Curly4||

    The United States has had many GI that was under the age of 18. Most handle themselves and served and made those who were at home proud. Many of those are in the service now and had to face death every day and in the more recent wars they also did not from which direction that death would come. Young people have in the past anyway been able to handle a weapon and they did not go bonkers when they had it in their hands.
    So why deny those have the right now to own a gun when they have shown that they are able to handle the responsibility? Why not deny those whatever their age is who are not responsible enough to own a weapon? There are laws against those who are psychologically or mentally capable to own a gun safely and these laws or really the people responsibility to enforce the laws that have failed. These people have failed not because they could not do what they knew they should but because there is no repercussions when they don't do their jobs. There is no exception that the that these people have to do their jobs.

  • Dan S.||

    Decades ago, people lied about their age in order to get into the military. That is no longer possible in this age of ubiquitous government IDs. I thought you needed to be 18 to enlist in the service today, but it turns out you can do it at 17 if you both have your parents' permission and have a high school diploma (which will usually mean being less than six months short of your 18th birthday). That's not at all the same as the 16-year-olds who fought in the Civil War, and through at least World War I. Just saying. And, as has been pointed out, new recruits don't use their weapons unsupervised.

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