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Study finds that waiting periods for gun purchases save lives

Currently, 16 states (including Minnesota) and the District of Columbia have laws that mandate waits of anywhere from three to 14 days before purchasing a firearm.

Waiting periods for gun purchases reduce suicide deaths by up to 11 percent, the study found.
REUTERS/Joshua Lott

Requiring people to wait a few days before buying a firearm reduces gun-related homicides by 17 percent, according to new research from the Harvard Business School.

Currently, 16 states (including Minnesota) and the District of Columbia have laws that mandate waits of anywhere from three to 14 days before purchasing a firearm. The new study says those laws prevent 750 gun homicides each year — a number that would be expanded by 910 if all states implemented similar laws.

Waiting periods for gun purchases also reduce suicide deaths by up to 11 percent, the study found.

As the study’s authors point out, delaying people’s purchases of firearms saves lives “without imposing any restrictions on who can own a gun.”

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Those Harvard authors are Deepak Malhotra, a negotiation and conflict resolution researcher; Michael Luca, an economist; and Christopher Poliquin, a doctoral student. The study was published earlier this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

‘No meaningful reduction’

As background information in the study points out, more than 33,000 people die each year the United States from gun-related injuries — more than die annually from motor vehicle-related injuries.

“This is concerning both in absolute terms and in comparison to other developed countries, all of which have lower rates of gun violence,” Malhotra, Luca and Poliquin write. “For example, if the United States could lower its firearm death rate to that of Finland (the high-income country with the second highest rate), roughly 20,000 fewer people would die from guns every year.”

“However, there has been no meaningful reduction in the US firearm-related death rate for more than a decade,” they add. “Moreover, evidence about which policies would be effective at reducing violence remains limited [due in large part to congressionally imposed restrictions on gun-related research], and the types of bills that are enacted depend on the political party in power.”

There is evidence, however, from behavioral economics and psychology to suggest one potentially effective policy: delaying gun purchases, even for a short time. 

“Visceral factors, such as anger or suicidal impulses, can spur people to inflect harm on others or themselves, but tend to be transitory states,” the researchers explain. “For example, [one study found] that there is a 10% increase in domestic violence following an upset loss of the local National Football League team.”

Study details

For their study, Malhotra, Luca and Poliquin used two different methods to look at the impact of “waiting period” laws on gun-related homicides and suicides.

First, they gathered information on all waiting period laws in the United States between 1970 and 2014. They found that 43 states and the District of Columbia had imposed a waiting period for at least some amount of time during those years.

The researchers compared every change in the passage and repeal of those waiting period laws with annual data on firearm-related deaths from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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They found that waiting periods were associated with a 17 percent reduction in homicide deaths — the equivalent of about 36 fewer gun-related murders per year in a typical state.

The benefit was the same whether the waiting period was shorter (two to three days) or longer (four to seven days).

The researchers also found that waiting periods were associated with a 7 percent to 11 percent reduction in gun-related suicides, or about 22 to 35 fewer gun suicides per year per state.

‘A natural experiment’

After completing that phase of their analysis, the researchers crunched the numbers yet again — but this time they restricted their analysis to the period from 1990 to 1998, when the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was in effect. That law required background checks for gun purchases from licensed dealers, as well as a five-day waiting period for doing the checks.

Once again, waiting periods resulted in a 17 percent reduction in gun-related homicides and a 6 percent reduction in gun-related suicides. 

“Both results are robust across models with and without controls for state-level economic and demographic changes,” Luca, Malhotra and Poliquin write. “Notably, exploiting the Brady Act as a natural experiment produces similar estimates as the longer sample period from 1970 to 2014.”

A previous study, published in 2000, had come to a different conclusion about the effects of the Brady Act on gun-related homicides. But Luca, Malhotra and Poliquin point out that the earlier study failed to take into account all states with pre-existing waiting periods, which made the accuracy of its findings problematic. 

In their study, the Harvard researchers also found that waiting periods had no significant effect on non-gun-related homicides. That finding suggests, they write, “that people subject to waiting period laws do not substitute other means of committing homicides.” 

Wide support

“Our results show that waiting periods reduce gun homicides,” Malhotra, Luca and Poliquin conclude.

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“Expanding the waiting period policy to states that do not currently have it would prevent an additional 910 gun homicides per year,” they write. “Waiting periods would therefore reduce gun violence without imposing any restrictions on who can own a gun.”

A majority of Americans — 79 percent, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll — favor such restrictions, they add.

FMI: You can read the study in full at the PNAS website.