JEFFERSON CITY -- Missouri lawmakers have proposed lowering the nation's oldest minimum age requirement for carrying concealed weapons, so that those allowed to drink alcohol can carry a gun.
Currently to qualify for a Missouri concealed weapon permit, applicants must be at least 23 years old, live in the state, have no felony convictions and pass a firearms training course and background check.
Now many of the people who pushed the state to set up that system for allowing concealed weapons want the minimum age lowered.
Of the 48 states that allow for concealed weapon permits -- only Illinois and Wisconsin do not -- about three-quarters require applicants to be 21 years old, according to Handgunlaw.us, a Web site operated by gun rights supporters to track state firearms laws. Other states allow permits even younger, at age 18.
Missouri's history with the conceal gun debate has been colorful. In 2003, the state became one of the last to let residents to get a permit for carrying a concealed weapon, which required overriding a gubernatorial veto.
To get the necessary two-thirds majority in the state Senate, one senator returned from active military duty at Guantanamo Bay. Another helped override the governor even though his home St. Louis County had just a few years earlier accounted for one-third of the votes opposing a failed similar ballot proposal.
Even after lawmakers passed the conceal and carry law, critics sued and the state Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law but excused four challenging counties from complying because the state hadn't provided a funding stream for the cost of issuing permits.
Since 2004, there have been 59,808 requests to the Missouri State Highway Patrol for criminal background checks on those seeking conceal and carry permits.
Legislation that was considered by a House committee earlier this week has rekindled the debate over concealed weapons.
Tim Oliver, a firearms trainer involved in efforts to pass Missouri's 2003 law, said setting the age requirement at 23 years old was a political maneuver to pick up votes in Senate.
Oliver, who also operates the Web site Learntocarry.com, said citizens get most of their rights and privileges by 21 years old. He called dropping the age threshold a matter of fairness, citing the example of soldiers who have returned from Iraq.
"The sad thing is that we have people who have been to the sandbox and come back at 20 years old and can't get a conceal-carry permit," said Oliver, whose holds classes in Hallsville, Columbia and Ozark.
Oliver said some of his students are too young to get Missouri permits, but the average age is around 50 years old. He attributed the older crowd to cost, which can get to $600-$700 for the permit, training, background check and gun.
Critics of the conceal and carry law, and even at least one supporter, said they don't like how backers of the original law are now trying to change some of the provisions that helped garner support for its passage.
"The most disturbing part of this is that the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby, once they pass a conceal-carry law, they come back year after year and start dismantling all the important criteria that they originally gave their blessing to," said Brian Malte, the director of state legislation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Malte said there's not much difference between allowing permits two years sooner, and the objection is over a gradual erosion of gun restrictions.
"It's really a slippery slope with them," he said. "The concern is where does it stop, at what point? And what else are they going to dismantle?"
During a Missouri House committee hearing over the lowering the age requirement, NRA lobbyist Whitney O'Daniel told lawmakers that a predecessor of his in 2003 agreed to increase the minimum age to 23 as part of a political strategy to get the legislation passed.
O'Daniel, who said Missouri has been "handicapped" by its higher age requirement, was one of the few to speak this week during a brief hearing about the legislation. There was no opposition voiced and the House committee has not yet taken a vote.
Several other states also have tinkered with their conceal and carry laws to change the age requirement. But many of those efforts, including in Massachusetts, New York and West Virginia, have been geared toward restricting the permits by increasing the minimum age.
New Mexico, which approved a conceal-carry law the same year as Missouri and in 2003, later broadened the law by dropping the age from 25 to 21 years old.
The sponsor of Missouri's legislation is a freshman who acknowledged that he didn't know why the state selected 23 years old. Rep. Dan Brown, R-Rolla, said many Missourians have started families by then and should be allowed to defend them.
"We do have a fundamental right to self defense in our country," he said.