Gun violence hospitalizes more than a dozen kids every day, kills tens of thousands of Americans every year, and costs our hospitals billions of dollars annually. Despite the scope of this issue, we have hardly any funding for firearm research, thanks in large part to the National Rifle Association, which works tirelessly to push back against gun control. But a new study, funded by Harvard Business School, shows a direct link between gun policy and fewer deaths.
For the study, Harvard researchers analyzed per capita homicide rates across the US from 1970 to 2014 and divided the 50 states, plus Washington, DC, into two categories: states that implemented a waiting period before the delivery of a purchased handgun, and states that didn't. They found that states with a mandatory waiting period had 17 percent fewer gun-related homicides and 10 percent fewer gun-related suicides than states with near-instant access. Their research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Every year, an estimated 750 gun-related deaths are avoided in the 17 states that have mandatory waiting periods, according to the study. The researchers predict that if it's implemented in every state, this policy could avoid an additional 910 deaths each year, for a total of 1,660 lives saved.
"It's really heartening to see people care enough about this issue to figure out ways to fund the research, get the data, and make important contributions," says Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "We need that."
These regulations even make the Second Amendment argument against gun control moot. "What we found is a law that doesn't take guns away from anybody, doesn't restrict anybody's right to own a gun, and yet can significantly reduce gun homicides," study author Deepak Malhotra, a professor at Harvard Business School whose research focuses on negotiation, deal-making, and conflict resolution, told the New York Times.
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"It just gives further evidence to a body of research that, when you put it together, shows that if you develop well-crafted gun policy, you can save lives," Horwitz says. In the 1990s, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act implemented a five-day waiting period on all handgun purchases and required that local law enforcement officers conduct a background check on anyone trying to buy. But in 1998, the federal government established an instant background check system that eliminated the five-day delay.
To get an even better grasp of the relationship between waiting periods and gun-related deaths, Malhotra and his team zoomed in on the eight years from 1990 to 1998, when several states with no waiting period laws were forced to adopt one. They report a 17 percent drop in gun-related homicides nationwide during that period—just like the results from their 45-year analysis—and a six percent drop in gun-related suicides. "The results of both analyses confirm a large and robust effect of waiting periods on homicides," the authors write.
In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, the report is urging discussions about gun legislation. Last week, Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois sponsored a bill that would provide a three-day waiting period for all handgun purchases. According to Skopos Labs, a software company that predicts the likelihood of proposed legislation getting through Congress, it has a slim one percent chance of being enacted. But that has no bearing on policy changes for individual states, Horwitz says. "The gun issue is tough, but Congress is dysfunctional," he says, noting that no major legislation has passed through Congress this year. "In the states, I think we have a much better chance of these things developing traction."
In recent years, we've witnessed some of the deadliest shootings in modern US history, with 58 people dead in Las Vegas, 49 killed at Pulse Nightclub in 2016, and 27 dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Now, 60 percent of Americans support stricter gun laws, up from 55 percent in 2014, according to a Gallup poll conducted in October. The poll also found that more than a quarter of Americans support a ban on handguns and almost half support a ban on assault rifles.
"There are no easy fixes to gun laws," says Horwitz, adding that it takes a series of interconnected, evidence-based policies to combat gun violence. "But if we make a commitment to do this, we can have success and save lives."
We need continued dedication to gun violence research if we want to come any closer to a comprehensive solution. "We shouldn't be afraid of science," Horwitz says. "We should understand that research can enlighten us and help us develop good policy. Some things will work, some things won't work, but we need science to help guide the way."