Firearms result in more than 33,000 deaths in the U.S. per year. Many of these incidents, particularly homicides, can be prevented with a simple solution: a waiting period.
A mandatory waiting period is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a delay, anywhere from one to 10 days, between the beginning of a gun purchase and taking ownership of the weapon. This allows stores time to conduct background checks where required and gives the potential buyer a “cooling off” period to potentially prevent impulsive acts of violence.
A new study reveals that waiting periods aren’t just common sense, they actually work.
The study’s researchers, faculty members at Harvard Business School, found that the 17 states (including Washington D.C.) that require mandatory waiting periods have reduced gun homicides by approximately 17%, preventing as many as 750 gun deaths each year.
If mandatory waiting periods were extended to the rest of the country, the study estimates an additional 950 gun deaths could be avoided. That’s 950 lives that could be saved every year.
Waiting periods also save lives when it comes to preventing suicide.
Multiple studies confirm that firearm access is a risk factor for suicide, and there is a strong correlation between states with high gun ownership and a higher number of firearm suicides than low gun ownership states.
“Many suicides (estimates range from 30% to 80%) are impulsive, with just minutes or an hour elapsing between the time a person decides upon suicide and when he or she commits the act,” wrote Annmarie Dadoly, the former editor of Harvard Health. “Yet the stressful events that lead to suicidal thoughts are often temporary, such as losing a job or having a romantic relationship end.”
Waiting periods allow for those dangerous, confusing, painful moments to pass without easy access to a firearm, keeping temporary feelings from turning into permanent tragedies.
Currently, there is no federal law requiring waiting periods for handgun purchases.
Many states began background checks and waiting periods in 1994, with the introduction of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, better known as the Brady Bill.
The Brady Bill is named for Press Secretary Jim Brady, who was shot and became permanently disabled during an assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981. The bill, in part, required potential handgun buyers (purchasing a gun from a licensed dealer) to undergo a background check and a five-day waiting period to conduct the check. In 1998, the FBI introduced the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a system that can return background check results in minutes, leading some states to lift the waiting period.
Other states allow dealers to sell the gun after three days, whether the background check is complete or not. This is how Dylann Roof obtained the weapon he used to kill nine people in the Charleston A.M.E. Church massacre.
Despite the federal Brady Bill, the U.S. still has a piecemeal set of laws from state to state and even from weapon to weapon, with handguns requiring different waiting periods than assault rifles.
The gaps and loopholes in gun laws put everyone at risk, but there’s a lot you can do to change that.
If you’re interested in working toward a national solution for gun violence prevention, contact your legislators and encourage them to support common sense reforms and to put an end to the moratorium on gun violence research. You can also volunteer your time or make a contribution to groups on the ground, working for safer communities, workspaces, and schools.
It’s never too late to start.