Analysis of waiting period laws and suicide rates

I think we’ve all heard the claim before that having a 24 or 48-hour waiting period on acquiring a pistol can curtail suicide. This is based on the idea that most suicides are incidents of passion. Basically a person who is prevented from all-but-immediately acquiring a firearm may have a change of heart.

To this end you’ve probably heard statements of how a firearm in the home is more likely to be used against its owner – either homicide or suicide – and so we need “stronger laws” or “commonsense gun laws” to prevent that.

Now I’ve already shown that States with what are considered “stronger” gun laws do not overall have lower suicide rates. In the wake of that, however, I’ve been looking at individual policies and the effect they have on suicide rates to see if we can tease out what policies might make a difference.

This time, I’m looking at waiting periods.

The Brady Campaign in 2013 released a State scorecard in which they scored a State’s waiting period laws as one of three scores:

  • 6 – Require waiting period of 3 days or more for all firearms
  • 3 – Require waiting period of 1 or 2 days, or only for certain firearms
  • 0 – No waiting periods

The difficulty here lies in the number of States with waiting periods at all. Brady scored just three (3) States at 6 and seven (7) States at 3. Meaning 40 States do not have any kind of waiting period. In my opinion, for the claim to have merit, two things must be true:

  • only a handful of States without waiting periods have suicide rates similar to States with a waiting period (i.e. they’re outliers)
  • the overwhelming majority of States without a waiting period have suicide rates higher than States with a waiting period

So what do the numbers look like? Suicide rates are for 2016 from the National Center for Health Statistics.

That is a lot of overlap. Let’s look at averages and medians.

  • Nationwide – Average: 15.79, Median: 15.15, Range: 7.2 – 25.9
  • No waiting period – Average: 16.8, Median: 16.55, Range: 8.1 – 25.9
  • Short waiting period – Average: 11.97, Median: 13.2, Range: 7.2 – 14.7
  • 3-day or longer – Average: 11.26, Median: 11.2, Range: 10.5 – 12.1

On States without a waiting period, the median and average being about equal shows a very even distribution of suicide rates across the board – a range of 8.1 to 25.9. And 18 of the 40 States without a waiting period, nearly half of them, have suicide rates lower than the national average.

The States with a waiting period do show a tendency for a lower suicide rate, but a tendency is really all it is.

The fact that there is significant overlap between the States with a waiting period versus States without one shows there is not really any way to know whether having a waiting period actually makes a difference. Would instituting a waiting period help those States with suicide rates higher than the national average? That’s certainly possible.

But as there are just as many States without waiting periods with lower-than-average suicide rates as States with waiting periods, that alone makes it difficult to tease out whether waiting periods actually make any difference.