Handgun Waiting Periods Prevent Hundreds of Homicides Each Year

 
 
Waiting-period laws reduce gun-related homicides by 17 percent and gun-related suicides by up to 11 percent, according to a study by Deepak Malhotra, Michael Luca, and Christopher Poliquin.
 
 
by Dina Gerdeman
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State laws that require people to wait a few days before purchasing firearms reduce gun-related homicides by 17 percent, new research shows.

Waiting periods saved 750 lives per year in the 17 states that had such policies in 2014, according to the study Handgun Waiting Periods Reduce Gun Deaths, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Expanding the waiting period policy to all 50 US states would prevent more than 900 additional gun homicides per year, the study says.

Making people pause before they can take home a gun is a simple life-saving solution that doesn’t impose any restrictions on who can own a firearm, according to the co-authors of the study, Harvard Business School professors Deepak Malhotra and Michael Luca, and doctoral candidate Christopher Poliquin.

“We’re showing that waiting periods have an effect,” Malhotra says. “So what we’re suggesting is simple: If states pass a waiting period law, they’re going to see a significant impact.”

“What we’re suggesting is simple: If states pass a waiting period law, they’re going to see a significant impact”

More than 33,000 people die in gun-related incidents every year in the United States—which is comparable to the number of fatalities resulting from car accidents. Current gun-purchase laws in most states allow the buyer to take home a firearm immediately after completion of an instant background check, which typically takes minutes.

Yet, the immediate purchase of a gun may allow people to act on temporary emotions and impulses. (A recent paper by David Card and Gordon Dahl shows a 10 percent spike in domestic violence immediately after a local National Football League team suffers an upset loss, highlighting the link between flashes of anger and violent episodes.)

A gun waiting period, typically between two and seven days, acts as a “cooling off” period, preventing would-be gun owners from making spur-of-the-moment purchases that could fuel violent outbursts. Delaying the acquisition of a gun might also close the window of opportunity for a perpetrator to use the weapon, if the only intention for making the purchase was to do harm within a certain period of time.

“The most plausible explanation as to why waiting periods work is this: People have visceral states, such as anger or suicidal impulses,” Malhotra says. “Giving people a couple days to cool off, the visceral state passes, and they make different judgments and decisions.”

Source: Deepak Malhotra, Michael Luca, and Christopher Poliquin

To investigate the effects of waiting periods, the researchers did two analyses. First, they studied data about waiting period laws and firearm-related deaths in the United States between 1970 and 2014. Forty-four states, including the District of Columbia, had a waiting period policy at some point during these 45 years. And these states saw a 17 percent reduction in gun homicides on average after the waiting period went into effect. Waiting periods also led to a 7 percent to 11 percent reduction in gun-related suicides.

In the second analysis, they focused on the 1990s, a period when the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was in effect between 1994 and 1998. The Brady Act imposed a waiting period in certain states, allowing the researchers to use this as a natural experiment to test whether a waiting period would impact homicides and suicides in states that were subject to the policy. The federal law—named after former White House press secretary James S. Brady, who was shot during an assassination attempt against President Ronald Regan and was left permanently disabled—required background checks on handgun purchases from licensed dealers and created a five-day waiting period to allow enough time for the checks.

The researchers found the same 17 percent reduction in gun homicides in states that got new waiting periods following the Brady Act, plus a 6 percent reduction in gun suicides.

When the permanent provisions of the Brady Act took effect on Nov. 30, 1998, and an instant background check system was introduced, many states decided to discard their waiting periods. (Only 15 states, including the District of Columbia, currently have waiting periods.)

Yet this research shows that even if a waiting period isn’t necessary to complete a background check, it can serve the important purpose of slowing down gun purchases long enough to prevent deaths.

“If the theory is that waiting periods are only needed for background checks, and now we don’t need them for that, states might get rid of them,” Poliquin says. “What we’re saying is: Don’t get rid of them.”

After the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Newton, Conn., Malhotra and Luca were moved to closely study gun violence. Poliquin joined them in 2014. It may seem an unlikely issue for professors in a business school to take on, but they say they are lucky that HBS independently funds much of the research conducted by its faculty and doctoral students. That’s important, since in 1996 the US government in large part froze federally funded research on gun violence.

This study may have been more difficult to conduct if the authors were reliant on government grant funding, as is the case in many public health and medical schools.

“We’re encouraged to study problems we think are important to address,” Luca explains. “So when we sat down and had an idea to study this, we didn’t need to find a funder.”

In 2016, Malhotra, Luca, and Poliquin released another study finding that mass shootings lead to more gun-related legislation. But in states with Democrat-controlled legislatures, not much changes legally as a result—and with Republican-controlled legislatures, mass shootings lead to laws that actually loosen gun restrictions.

Frustrated that the US firearm-related death rate hasn’t seen a meaningful reduction in more than a decade, the HBS team is hoping their latest research might point the way toward one solution. After speaking to Malhotra about the study, US Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois, introduced a bill, HR 4018, a few weeks ago that would require a three-day waiting period for handgun sales nationwide.

“We wanted to find a policy that was not only effective, but would have some chance of passing,” Malhotra says. “This would eliminate close to 17 percent of the deaths resulting from gun homicides, not the other 83 percent. It is not designed to prevent mass shootings like in Las Vegas or Orlando. But if we can reduce gun homicides by 17 percent with such a minimal impact on law-abiding gun owners, I’d love to hear why we shouldn’t do that.”

While the call for waiting periods is bound to receive some pushback, the researchers are encouraged by the broad support waiting periods receive. The American Medical Association supports waiting periods for gun purchases, and polls show that a majority of Americans—and even a majority of gun owners—back them as well, the paper says.

The researchers also point out that if a federal law isn’t in the cards, individual states could adopt their own waiting periods.

“You don’t need federal legislation. Any state that’s interested in reducing gun homicides can do this on their own, and maybe that’s the way to go,” Malhotra says. “You may see people oppose waiting periods because they oppose any type of gun regulation. But we haven’t seen anyone saying, ‘There’s something wrong with this research.’ Because the reality is, this research is very strong.”

Related Reading:

When Mass Shootings Lead to Looser Gun Restrictions

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About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

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