In 2018, physicians began #ThisIsOurLane, a movement arguing that gun violence is a public health epidemic that medical professionals have a vital role in dismantling. Gun suicide rates are increasing across America – particularly in states with the fewest gun laws. Guns are the most lethal method of self-harm, with a fatality rate of 90%, yet only 11 states are enforcing a key law that prevents gun violence and protects our patients: gun waiting periods.
Waiting period laws require that a certain number of days elapse between the purchase and physical possession of a gun, with the goal of preventing impulsive homicides and suicides. By delaying the immediate acquisition of a gun, people are prevented from acting on temporary emotional crises and law enforcement agencies are given extra time to complete background checks. As a medical student in Chicago, gun violence hits close to home for many of the patients we serve. Importantly, Illinois implemented a waiting period of 72 hours in 2018, which is a step in the right direction to reduce the impact of gun violence.
Waiting periods work. According to a 2017 study, waiting period laws reduce gun homicides by 17% and gun suicides by 7-11%. This translates to countless families and community members spared the trauma of losing loved ones to guns.
Waiting period laws are effective because they intercept the space between decision and action, allowing time for emotions and the desire to act on them impulsively to subside. A 2021 study found that 70% of people made a suicide attempt within 3 hours of deciding to die. While planning a method and location occurred within 12 hours prior to the suicide attempt, the transition between making the decision to die and the suicide attempt can happen in minutes. It is critical to restrict immediate access to lethal means, allowing individuals the time to reconsider taking action and get medical help, whether independently or when loved ones notice their state of crisis.
Why is it critical, as health care providers, to lobby for gun waiting periods now?
In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety and depression worldwide increased by a shocking 25%. Notably, suicidal ideation and self-harm also increased during the pandemic, especially among adolescent females. Suicide in the United States had begun to slow in 2019 and 2020 but increased again in 2021, particularly among communities of color – and 55% of these suicides were caused by firearms. These increases were not limited to suicides; during the COVID-19 pandemic, homicide rates in the U.S. also rose by 30%.
The United States is facing a mental health crisis, and that crisis is only exacerbated by the swift access to firearms. Fortunately, waiting periods are supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans. In 2019, 85% of non-gun owners and 72% of gun owners supported gun purchase waiting periods. Additionally, in 2017, 75% of Americans stated that they would support a 30-day waiting period for gun purchases; the current longest waiting period is 14 days, implemented by Hawaii. The public is on board, yet 39 states have yet to implement a waiting period.
Countless deaths can be prevented by passing this critical legislation.
Gun violence is a public health matter, and it’s time that more states follow suit in protecting their communities. To accomplish this, it is critical that leaders in the medical field, advocates, and community members encourage state legislators to work towards implementing gun waiting periods, thereby preventing gun suicides and homicides. As health care providers, one of our vital duties is to protect patients from harm – especially at the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health crisis, and gun violence epidemic.
Of course, gun waiting periods are just a small piece of the puzzle in dismantling gun violence, but reducing access to purchasing guns during temporary emotional crises will save lives. In memory of the many parents, children, and patients lost in your state due to suicide by firearm or gun violence, your voice in health care is needed now more than ever. Advocate for waiting period laws, contact your state legislator, and educate your community – you can help prevent the loss of countless loved ones.
Taytum Kahl is a medical student.