The Policy That Could Reduce Gun Deaths by Hundreds Each Year

Oct 17, 2017 at 1:17 p.m. ET
Image: Drew Angerer/Staff/Getty Images

No matter where you fall on the debate surrounding gun control, chances are you feel pretty strongly about your stance. Whether this is based on awareness of how regular mass shootings have become, generally being uncomfortable with firearms, wanting a means of self-defense, needing multiple weapons for multiple purposes or just collecting, the rationalizations vary as much the positions.

However, researchers at Harvard Business School decided to take a different approach: Conducting research on one specific gun policy — a mandatory waiting period before purchase — in order to determine whether it has any noteworthy outcomes. Turns out it does and could save hundreds of lives each year.

Currently, more than 33,000 Americans die each year from gun-related events, including suicides, homicides and accidents, making it a leading preventable cause of death and, in turn, a major public health issue. This is something that many prominent public health advocates have called on the public and elected officials to accept and address and pointed to the lack of solid research in the area as one of the reasons for legislation that is lagging.

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But given how varied gun-control legislation is from state to state, it would be difficult to trace the effects of a single regulation. Drawing on research from other countries, which found that having some sort of waiting period between the purchase and delivery of a firearm could potentially reduce gun deaths, researchers at Harvard also decided to focus on this aspect of the legislative debate, deciding to take action following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting.

The Harvard researchers looked at the 19 states that, following the passage of the 1994 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, suddenly had mandatory waiting periods. They discovered that there was a 17 percent decrease in gun homicides and a 6 percent reduction in suicides when the 19 states had laws requiring waiting periods with gun purchases. Although computerized background checks replaced the mandatory waiting periods after 1998, some states kept the waiting period regulations in place.

Today, there are 17 states with waiting period laws, which the researchers estimate means that there are approximately 750 fewer gun homicides each year. If the mandatory waiting period were required in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., the authors of the study estimate that an additional 910 lives could be saved each year.

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Margaret Formica, a public health researcher at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse who studies firearms deaths but wasn’t involved in the Harvard research, calls this study “an innovative way of looking at this issue” that comes with one major limitation: “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 told Science Magazine. In other words, this is a start, but more research in the area is needed.

So why hasn’t there been more research looking into the larger impact of gun control? Part of it was a 1996 de facto ban on federally funded research on firearms in which Congress told the Centers for Disease Control that they were not permitted to “advocate or promote gun control.” That was more than 20 years ago, and we can't afford to continue this approach. Gun control is, in fact, a serious public health issue, and it’s time to start thinking of it in those terms.