Earlier this month, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a law mandating a 72-hour waiting period on all firearm purchases. It’s the nation’s most recent gun control measure, but the idea feels as old as time: waiting period laws, proponents say, stop crimes of passion by forcing individuals to take a “cooling off period” before committing violent acts.
Former Democratic Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords referenced this idea in a Facebook post praising Rauner for the passage of the new bill.
“Today, Illinois took a step in the right direction to ensure people in a crisis can’t access guns,” she said.
The gun control group that bears her name, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, elaborates on its website: “The presence of a gun dangerously compounds the risk of impulsive acts of violence, especially suicide. Waiting periods, or ‘cooling off’ laws, create an important window of time for gun purchasers to reconsider their intentions, which can lead to a change of heart and a saved life.”
The federal government does not mandate a waiting period to purchase a firearm, but ten states and the District of Columbia currently have some type of waiting period law on the books: California (10 days), D.C. (10 days), Hawaii (14 days), Illinois (3 days), Rhode Island (7 days), Minnesota (7 days for handguns and “assault weapons”), Florida (3 days for handguns), Iowa (3 days for handguns), Maryland (7 days for handguns), New Jersey (7 days for handguns).
The 1993 Brady Bill established a nationwide, 5-day waiting period, but that provision was replaced in 1998 by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Reduction in Crime Rates?
On its face, the idea shows promise. Everyone has contemplated or committed actions in times of crisis that they later regret when cooler heads prevail. But does the real-world data back up the feel-good policy?
To answer this question, I reached out to Dr. John Lott, an economist and gun policy expert who founded the Crime Prevention Research Center. I asked him about the current research on waiting period laws and whether the data corresponds to the claims of the Giffords Center and others.
“Based on a lot of research that’s been done, there’s either no effect, or, if you’re talking about longer waiting periods, there can actually be a pernicious effect,” he said.
The theory sounds good, he continued, but “you may have a situation where someone needs to have a gun for protection. Having a waiting period could make it so that they’re not able to avail themselves of that, so bad things happen that otherwise could have been prevented.”
He admitted that there have likely been a few cases in which a waiting period prevented a crime of passion, but there have also been cases in which the same kind of law disallowed someone from being able to protect themselves.
“There’s some evidence that once you get past three days with a waiting period, you’ll see slight increases in rape rates,” he said. “A woman may have a stalker, and if it’s a serious stalker, even a delay of a few days can make a difference.”
That change won’t be significant in terms of overall percentages, but it will make a huge difference to the women in those cases.
Prior to 2017, no studies had found a connection between waiting periods and reductions in crime. Then, shortly after President Trump took office, two Harvard professors and a graduate student published a paper claiming to have found a 17 percent reduction in homicides in states that instituted handgun waiting periods.
Needless to say, when researchers from Georgetown and Duke and researchers from the University of Cincinnati and Arizona State fail to find any connection between waiting periods and crime, a 17 percent reduction is cause for suspicion.
“It just wasn’t a serious study,” Lott said. “Basically, they had Obama administration holdovers trying to push it out.”
The study claims to have developed an innovative way of analyzing the effects of the Brady Bill, but, as the Crime Prevention Research Center noted at the time, it suffers from a few serious limitations. First, it assumes all waiting periods are the same, but in reality, waiting periods can be as short as three days and as long as two weeks. Second, the paper fails to control for its age group (those over 21) by considering the homicide and suicide rates of those under 21. Finally, and most ironically, the study indicates the background checks are more likely to increase homicides and suicides than to decrease them, which calls the reliability of this report even further into question.
But you don’t need to take Lott’s word for it. Even a largely supportive report in Science Magazine includes a quote from public health researcher Margaret Formica, who points out one “major limitation.” Because the researchers looked at population-level data rather than outcomes for individual gun purchasers, the study cannot actually prove causation over correlation.
“You can’t tell if gun purchasers were the ones directly affected, so you can’t know for sure that it’s a causal relationship,” she says.
Reduction in Suicide Rates?
So much for crime rates, but what about suicide rates?
The research in this area is somewhat more robust, though still largely inconclusive. Studies have indicated that individuals are more likely to commit suicide within one week after a gun purchase. But other studies have found that California’s 15-day (at the time) waiting period had almost no effect on whether or not an individual committed suicide. Once the waiting period ended, risk of suicide rose within the first week after receipt of the weapon and remained highly elevated over the first month of purchase.
Lott believes these studies fail because they consider gun suicides without considering the total suicide rate.
“In theory a waiting period could have a cooling off effect in terms of suicide,” he said. “But I don’t see any evidence that any type of gun control law has any impact on total suicides. There are too many close substitute ways of committing suicide. I think it’s a mistake to only look at gun suicides. I think you have to look at total suicides.”
It’s a common refrain, but it’s worth noting again. According to the World Health Organization, South Korea has a higher rate of suicide than the United States (36.1 vs. 19.5 suicides per 100,000) while remaining one of the most gun-restrictive countries in the world. The causes of suicide go far beyond access to firearms, which is why, as Lott points out, gun control laws have had little effect on overall suicide rates, either in the U.S. or abroad.
Given the inconclusive nature of current research, it’s difficult to imagine how politicians like Gov. Rauner justify denying a constitutional right, even if that denial expires after a set period of time. Like almost every other gun control measure, waiting period laws can’t be shown to have any positive effects beyond making their proponents feel good about their efforts to curb “gun violence.” Time will tell whether more states follow Illinois’ lead, but in the meantime gun owners must stay vigilant as the fight for the Second Amendment remains (for now) in all 50 state legislatures.