The Case for Handgun Waiting Periods

More than 33,000 people in the United States die from gun-related injuries each year, making firearms the second leading cause of injury-related death. Many of these deaths could be avoided through policy—for example, Australia all but eliminated gun deaths through a series of gun control measures that included a massive gun buyback program, an assault weapons ban, and strict gun-trafficking policies. In the U.S., the current political climate would prohibit such dramatic changes. And yet, we believe there is still room for politically viable gun legislation that will save lives.

Our recent empirical research shows that handgun waiting periods that delay gun purchases (typically by a few days) lead to large reductions in gun violence and can provide a politically acceptable revision to U.S. gun policy.

To understand why waiting periods can have a significant impact it is helpful to consider the behavioral foundations underlying such a policy. Research from behavioral economics and psychology has found that intense emotions like anger and sadness—“visceral factors,” in academic language—can cause people to take actions they later regret, such as resorting to gun violence.

Yet research also suggests that these emotions are often transitory. Given sufficient time to cool off, the types of intense negative emotions that lead to violent tendencies can pass. This suggests that inserting even a short delay in the gun-buying process has the potential to reduce gun violence, without restricting anyone’s right to own a gun. (Delaying a gun purchase might have the additional benefit of closing the window of opportunity for would-be perpetrators of violence to harm their victims.) In a recent project, we set out to test the impact of handgun waiting periods, which impose precisely such a delay, on homicides.

Introducing just a modest amount of friction into the gun buying process can lead to considerable societal benefit.

Our research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that waiting-period laws reduce gun homicides by 17 percent with no significant increase in other types of homicides (that is, people aren’t simply turning to other means of murdering people).

We arrived at our results using two complementary analyses. First, we tracked all waiting-period policies across all 50 states and the District of Columbia from 1970 through 2014. Nearly all states (44), including D.C., have had a waiting period at some point since 1970, and 32 states have changed their policy at least once during our sample period. This variation within and across states allowed us to compare changes in gun violence within states that adopted or repealed waiting periods to the changes in gun violence in other states.

For the second analysis, we examined a natural experiment that resulted from the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, a federal law that exogenously imposed a waiting period on most states that did not have such policies between 1993 and 1998. Although our first approach covers a longer time period, this second approach helps provide further evidence on the causal nature of the relationship between the passage of a handgun waiting-periods law and the subsequent reduction in homicides.

Our main finding was consistent across the two approaches: waiting periods reduce gun homicides by 17 percent, with no increase in other types of homicide. In other words, perpetrators of violence do not simply shift to other means of committing homicide, and slight delays in obtaining a gun do not leave people defenseless against would-be attackers.

Fredrick Vars recently suggested allowing people to add themselves to a registry barring gun purchases.

This result demonstrates the potential of behavioral science to help reduce our country’s scourge of gun violence, and suggests that introducing just a modest amount of friction into the gun buying process can lead to considerable societal benefit. This impact is large from a policy perspective. We estimate that expanding waiting periods from the 14 states that currently have such policies to all 50 states would prevent more than 900 additional gun deaths each year.

The potential of behavioral insights to inform gun policy isn’t limited to the enactment of waiting periods. Fredrick Vars, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, recently suggested allowing people to add themselves to a registry barring gun purchases. Many states with casinos already allow people who are concerned that they have a gambling problem to register themselves with programs that make it illegal for them to enter casinos. The Gun Shop Project is another example. It works with firearm retailers to help them avoid selling weapons to suicidal customers and encourages stores to display suicide prevention posters and brochures. Like waiting-period policies, these approaches acknowledge that a person’s capacity to control his or her own behavior can diminish in the presence of strong, temporary emotions. Each of these policies helps to limit the amount of damage people can do to themselves or to others during those brief periods in which they might make a regrettable decision.

Behaviorally-informed gun policy has the potential to reduce violence without imposing new restrictions on anyone’s right to own a gun, making it particularly promising in the current U.S. political climate. Waiting periods are not only effective (as our research shows) but also supported by the majority of Americans, the majority of Republicans, and even approximately half of all gun owners. After all, waiting periods do not take guns away from anyone, and they do not restrict gun ownership in any way.

Congress is beginning to explore ways to take action on this emerging research. Based on our research, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois introduced a bill into Congress (H.R. 4018) that would implement a three-day waiting period. The bill already has a dozen co-sponsors. We hope that the bill will gain additional momentum as other policymakers—Democrats and Republicans—evaluate it and conclude that such a law not only saves lives but also does so in a way that respects and protects the Second Amendment rights of current and future gun owners. In the meantime, any state that wishes to make a significant impact on reducing gun violence without waiting for action in D.C. can implement its own waiting period law. As we have shown, such a policy change can be effective even when enacted at the state level.