With all the shootings reported in the media, gun violence has been a topic that has flooded media outlets across the United States, whether we're talking about such related sub-topics as terrorist watch lists, mass shootings, or high-capacity magazine bans. Americans are getting pretty sick of hearing about gun violence. Although guns are not one of the top ten leading causes of death, there is a disproportionately visceral reaction to gun deaths, which could explain this piece from the Washington Post (WaPo) last week. As the WaPo piece points out, mass shootings and suicides are more common, and the commonality between the two is guns. For the author of the WaPo, the cure is waiting periods. The question here is whether she is right.
With regards to waiting periods, there are two separate discussions to be had: one regarding gun violence and one regarding gun suicides. When looking at gun violence, waiting periods do not seem to have an effect, which is largely what Politifact found last year when sifting through studies (including the CDC study) on the topic. That could make sense for a couple of reasons. One is that if it is a "crime of passion," they very well might pick up the first thing they find to kill the victim. The second is that, as a Duke University study points out, criminals are much more likely to buy a gun through their social networks than through a gun dealer or gun show. Plus, with improved technology, a background check can be complete in hours, not days.
However, looking at gun-related deaths related to gun violence is only a part of the story. When looking at CDC data on causes of death, gun suicides make up for nearly two out of three gun-related deaths. America's big gun problem is not that of gun homicides, but that of gun suicides. 55 percent of all suicides are carried out with a firearm, even though 15.5 percent of suicide attempts by males are carried out with a gun. While 2.5 percent of women who attempt suicide do so with a gun, the sad truth is men are 3.5 times more likely to die from suicide than women, and 70 percent of suicides in America are committed by white males. According to the CDC, suicide is one of the top ten causes of death, and firearms contribute a major role to that because they are regrettably an effective weapon of choice for suicides.
In other developed countries, only about 9 percent of suicides are committed with firearms, whereas it is 55 percent in the United States. The question here is whether a waiting period would deter individuals from buying firearms to commit suicide or if the individuals would use some other method to commit suicide. The WaPo piece had a completely separate methodology section spelling out its assumptions. Part of that was realizing that other methods had a lower success rate, which led the author to calculate that there would be a 20-38% reduction in gun suicides. Even on the low end of that estimation, that would translate into about 4,200 lives saved every year. A study from Harvard (Miller et al., 2013) seems to accept the substitution theory presented here. Additionally, we have to remember that the feeling of wanting to commit suicide is an intense, yet often brief emotion. A reasonable waiting period has real potential to prevent suicides, either because the individual either reconsiders purchasing a gun, seeks help, or pulls out of the suicidal funk. Greater gun access translates into higher probability of suicide. Even the Politifact article admits that there is enough evidence that waiting periods can lower the effect on suicide rates. A 2015 study from the American Journal of Public Health confirms the assumption that waiting periods lower suicide rates (Anestis and Anestis, 2015).
However, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't express my skepticism. A study (Ludwig and Cook, 2000) was conducted to test of the effects of the Brady Law's background check and waiting period. While it did not affect the overall suicide rate, it did lower the suicide rate for those 55 and older. Australia is not a good example to use because after its gun buyback, Australia actually experienced a temporary increase in its suicide rate before it decreased again. South Korea and Japan are two countries that have very strict gun control, yet they are amongst the countries in the developed world with the highest suicide rates.
While I don't find the evidence on waiting periods to be clear-cut (it would also be nice to have more evidence, too), there is certainly enough evidence to consider waiting periods as a matter of public policy. How long the waiting period is another question. 10 days might be excessive and unconstitutional. To reiterate that suicidal bouts are often brief, you might only need something like 2 to 4 days to be effective. If we are looking to reduce suicide rates in this country, I only think that waiting periods would be part of the equation. This country would need to move to a new societal norm regarding suicide. If someone's bone was protruding from their arm or leg, you would tell them to go to the hospital. However, if someone is going through depression (6.7 percent of Americans are going through major depressive disorder as we speak), it is often looked down upon in this society. Countries that have strict gun laws, such as Japan and South Korea, have strict gun laws and high suicide rates, which implies a cultural component to the equation. Americans live in a high-stress, rat-race society that does not treat mental health with the respect that we should. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death, yet it does not get nearly the same press that mass shootings do, even though an American is about 100 times more likely to die from suicide this year than from a mass shooting. Knowing is half the battle, and the more we make people aware of this issue, the more we can take steps to help people cope with anxiety and depression.