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Legal Issues With Parents Buying Guns for Their Kids

A father and daughter hunting.
By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

Americans have a lot of opinions about guns. Love them or hate them, they're a big part of our country's history. The longstanding debate over the right to bear arms isn't going to die away anytime soon. But what you don't hear as much about is the right of children to bear arms, and the liability their parents have when things go wrong.

Recently, a Michigan mom and her son made headlines when he was caught packing heat under her supervision. He was old enough to legally buy guns, but for other reasons was deemed mentally unfit to do so. When he was flagged as a threat and investigated by the feds, not only did he get in trouble with the law, but his mother did, too. We'll cover a summary of the case against the Michigander mother and son, and give you some pointers on how you can be mindful about the law if you plan to have firearms around children.

Michigan Mother Criminally Charged For Buying Son Guns

The following alleged facts come from the sworn testimony of the FBI Special Agent on the case. Around March, Google submitted a tip to the FBI about a YouTube account that had been making threatening comments to several groups. These included law enforcement, the LGBTQ+ community, and Democrats (including President Biden and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer). They soon traced the account to Michelle Berka of Michigan. Michelle's 30-year-old son, Randall, was living with her at the time, along with Michelle's husband. Randall had been determined by the state of Michigan to be legally incapacitated, and he had been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment a decade ago. As such, he was banned from possessing firearms or ammo. His mother told the FBI she “is scared of [her son], does not think mental health treatment is working, and believes [her son] should be arrested and put in prison."

When they searched Randall Berka's room, federal agents uncovered firearms and ammo, including a semiautomatic pistol, a 12-gauge shotgun, a rifle, and another semiautomatic similar to an AK-47. They soon arrested Randall and charged him with illegal possession of firearms. But federal law prohibits selling firearms and ammunition to people who are banned, and requires sellers to conduct extensive background checks. So, if Randall was barred from buying guns due to his legally incapacitated mental status, how did he buy the four guns and ammo he had? How did he pass a background check?

He didn't. His mom did, according to her interview with agents. After a recent federal indictment, Michelle Berka now stands charged with knowingly providing false information during the purchase of firearms that she then allegedly transferred to her son. If she's convicted, she could face up to ten years in prison and a quarter-million dollar fine. While Randall's trial is set to begin on October 10, his mother is out on a bond awaiting her own court date for which she has pleaded not guilty.

What About for Minor Children?

It is one thing to prohibit the transfer of firearms, particularly handguns or semi-automatic weapons, to people going through significant health issues who could be a danger to themselves or others. But what about parents who might be thinking about taking their daughters hunting or gifting their nephews a shotgun for Christmas? Michelle's son was an adult, but since he was legally barred from buying his own guns, their situation is not dissimilar from an adult wanting to buy a gun for a minor to use.

Restrictions on Children Using Firearms

You might not be surprised to learn that the Second Amendment's right to bear arms does not apply to kids, just like the constitutional right to vote has age restrictions. Federal law distinguishes between types of guns for establishing minimum age requirements for purchase or possession. For “long guns" (shotguns and rifles), you must be 18 or older to buy one; for handguns, you have to be at least 21. You must be 18 to have a handgun in your possession.

Federal law is just the floor, not the ceiling, on restrictions for who can purchase firearms. While all states have to abide federal laws, they can — to a certain degree — impose even more restrictions for their own citizens. Background checks are an example of this.

No one under 18 can buy firearms anywhere in the country. Furthermore, you technically can't even gift a gun to a minor, or let them borrow it. There is a “parental consent" exception, but it comes with restrictions. Under federal law, a parent or legal guardian can purchase a gun for a minor (technically, there's no minimum age), or let them borrow it, but the parent has to give written permission for the minor to use the gun for certain limited purposes.


One exception would be if the minor lives or works on a ranch or farm and needs the gun for regular operation of the premises, such as for use on wild animals. Other exceptions would be if the minor is using the gun for hunting or target practice, or taking a class on riflery. Another notable exception is if the minor is a member of a military branch and is formally issued a firearm.

What if the minor is threatened with an intruder and takes up a gun lying around in self-defense? The law also carves out an exception for this circumstance. If you are a parent who keeps guns in the house, and a burglar invades your home, you would not be on the hook if your kid decided to take it up in protection. So, technically, Macaulay Culkin could have used his dad's real shotgun instead of a BB gun when Joe Pesci decided to interrupt his highly nutritious microwavable macaroni and cheese dinner that he got on sale.

Toy Guns

Speaking of BB guns, where do toy guns stand? BB guns (which use metal pellets or “BBs") and airsoft guns (which use plastic pellets) may be associated with children, but they can be incredibly dangerous. Do you have to be of a certain age to buy or use these? In many states, yes. Kevin MacAlister (eight) was too young in Home Alone to buy a BB gun under Illinois law (you have to be 13). That's probably why he had to take it from his big brother, Buzz. You also have to be 18 to purchase an airsoft gun, but once an adult buys one for a child, there are no federal age or usage restrictions like there are with firearms. And like with firearms, the federal laws are just the minimum; states and municipalities may place their own restrictions on toy guns.

Parental Liability for Children's Misdeeds

An important thing to note with both real and toy guns is that even if you've made sure that a child is legally using a gun, you're still not necessarily in the clear. What a child does with the gun is just as important as how they got it. Remember, even children can be charged and tried as criminals or juvenile delinquents. Even if a child was in lawful possession of a firearm but maimed or killed someone, they could be convicted of a crime. Furthermore, a parent can be held criminally liable for the crimes of their children. And even if the child isn't convicted of a crime, they can be sued in civil court by someone they hurt with a gun. In this case, too, the parent can be “vicariously liable" in civil court for the misdeeds of their child.

In short, before you hit up the sporting goods store for an air rifle to stuff your kid's stocking, or before you let them borrow your shotgun for target practice, you'll want to ensure you are complying with federal, state, and local laws, as well as ensure the child is able to handle it responsibly. Consult your state's laws on permitted uses, for one. For another, hope that your kid has decent aim and doesn't take a neighbor's eye out – because you both could find yourselves in court.

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