Waiting periods were among the first efforts toward gun control since the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968. The waiting period concept was intended to give law enforcement time to ensure that a potential gun buyer wasn’t prohibited from owning a firearm and to give hot-headed individuals a few days to cool off. Congress passed the Brady Act, a five-day waiting period on handguns, effective in 1994 and several states followed with laws of their own. Though the Brady Act lapsed with the creation of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NCIS) in 1998, many state-level restrictions remain on the books. But do they work?
A group of researchers studied this topic and published their findings on March 22, 2018, in “The Economic Journal,” a peer-reviewed scientific publication of The Royal Economic Society. The study began with a discussion of other research on the effectiveness of waiting-period laws and other gun control measures, including restrictions on gun show purchases. The authors stated that “gun shows have no detectable effect on homicides or suicides, and tighter regulation of gun shows does not appear to reduce ﬁrearm-related death … a large portion of those who commit homicides obtain ﬁrearms through theft or private connections, and thus homicides are unlikely to be signiﬁcantly affected by purchase delays.”
To quantify this theory, the researchers compared data from states with no waiting periods to states with waiting periods in place. According to the study, 32 states impose no delay on firearm purchases, with waiting periods in the remaining states ranging from three days to six months. Some states, Florida as an example, have waiting periods, but waive them for carry-permit holders. Most waiting periods only apply to handguns with only nine states and Washington D.C. imposing delays on long guns.
The authors of the study specifically examined cause-of-death data from the National Center for Health Statistics to determine firearm and non-firearm homicide rates from 1990 to 2013. The authors don’t mince words on the study’s results: “There appears to be no consistent statistically signiﬁcant relationship between handgun delay policies and homicides.” What about straw purchasers? The study goes on to state that, “a policy designed to interrupt the legitimate sale of firearms will not have any bite in secondary or illegal markets.”
There is one catch to the data, though, which relates to suicides. “Handgun delay policies do have a consistently negative and statistically signiﬁcant effect on ﬁrearm-related suicides,” though that effect is only 2 percent. Suicides represent the majority of deaths by firearm in the U.S., and to put those numbers into perspective, “self-inﬂicted gunshots kill more Americans every day as the worst mass shooting in the country’s history.” It bears noting that many of the nations with the world’s highest suicide rates including Russia have few, if any, firearms in private hands. Suicide attempts are far more likely to be successful with a firearm than without, though, something that the study points out.
This data establishes what many have said for decades: Waiting periods simply don’t prevent crime. The authors leave us with a final note, one that we can probably all agree upon, “A key element of depolarising the normative debate about gun control and gun violence is establishing a foundation of facts about gun control policies and gun violence.” I think most gun owners would happily have an honest debate about gun-related policies based on fact rather than emotion. I know I would.