Gun purchase waiting periods don't stop mass shootings but they can save hundreds of lives a year – maybe thousands – that suicide would have ended. That is the central conclusion of research by Griffin Edwards, Erik Nesson, Joshua Robinson and Fredrick Vars, published in the December 2018 issue of The Economic Journal.


Their study uses sophisticated statistical analysis to connect changes in states’ waiting period laws to changes in homicide and suicide rates over the period from 1990 to 2013. They find substantial reductions in gun-related suicide deaths with no corresponding increase in other forms of suicide. 


If all 33 states without a mandatory purchase delay at the time of the study were to adopt one, the researchers estimate that more than 600 lives per year could be saved. Moreover, they are only able to estimate this effect reliably for handgun waiting periods. If these laws were to apply to rifles and shotguns as well, the number of lives saved would likely be larger. 


The results should not be surprising, the researchers comment: Many suicides are impulsive. A waiting period gives time for the impulse to subside.


They find no evidence that individuals unable to purchase a firearm quickly substitute a different method of suicide successfully. But even if some do switch methods, firearms are by far the deadliest. Surviving one attempt is almost always enough to prevent suicide; only 10% of those who survive a suicide attempt go on to die by suicide.


The effect of waiting periods on mass shootings is uncertain. The study finds no consistent evidence that waiting periods reduce homicides, and mass shootings tend to be planned over a longer period of time than typical homicides. So why should a public concerned about mass shootings support waiting periods? 


While mass shootings are appalling and garner massive media attention, the daily realities of gun violence – suicides in particular – are much deadlier. On average, about as many people take their own lives with a firearm every single day in the United States as the number of people who died in the largest mass shooting in American history (Las Vegas). Furthermore, while homicide rates have been declining across the country since the early 1990s, suicide rates have been on the rise since the mid -2000s.


The researchers conclude:


‘Gun policy is often difficult because policy-makers must attempt to weigh the value that many of their constituents place on their right to access firearms against the social cost of gun violence.’


‘But waiting periods are somewhat unique in that such policies do not ask law-abiding citizens to forfeit access to firearms, but rather ask them to delay a purchase for a short period of time.’


‘Given that these policies can potentially save hundreds if not thousands of lives a year, the benefits seem well worth the cost.’