Evidence-Based Policies to Prevent Gun Violence: Waiting Periods and Red Flag Laws

This is the tenth post in a series about Reducing Gun Violence in the United States. The previous post described Gun Dealer Oversight and Regulation.

In this post, I’ll explore using waiting periods and red flag laws to prevent gun violence.

For those who want to see the highlights without going through the data, skip right to the conclusions at the bottom of this post.

Waiting Periods

Recall from my previous post on Background Checks that if a federal background check initiated at a licensed gun dealer is not completed within three days, the sale may proceed. Because of this relatively short period for federal law enforcement to complete a check, several states have “waiting period” laws to prevent a purchaser from obtaining their purchased firearm, and these range from three to fourteen days. During this waiting period, the purchaser may not take possession of their legally purchased firearm. These waiting periods have two primary effects:

  • allow federal law enforcement more time to perform a background check
  • add in a “cooling off” period to reduce the chance of a newly purchased gun to be used in an impulsive, harmful way

Many waiting period laws apply to all gun sales at licensed dealers, but a few only apply to handguns or certain types of long guns such as semi-automatic rifles.

States which require a waiting period before taking possession of a gun (source: Giffords Waiting Periods)

Ten states have waiting periods as of 2019.

Do waiting periods on firearm possession have any effect?

Waiting periods of taking gun possession are associated with (sources: State Firearm Laws, Looking Down the Barrel, Handgun Legislation)

  • lower rates of guns moving from state to state for criminal use
  • lower rates of firearm suicide (~ 3%)

Waiting periods have not been shown to have an effect on firearm homicide rates; unlike purchaser licensing requirements (which, by design, include built-in waiting periods).

Red Flag Laws

Red Flag laws are another method that has been shown to be very effective at reducing gun violence, in particular, suicide.

In many cases, the pretext for removal of firearms from a person is based on that person having a prohibited civil status, such as being a felon. These status categories, based on previous actions of the individual, do not cover many people who are not criminals, have no domestic violence history or history of institutionalization for mental illness. These individuals might show warning signs of violent behavior, such as (but not limited to) substance abuse issues, anger issues, or suicidal thoughts to which existing firearm removal laws do not apply.

Red flag laws, which exist at the state level, fill these gaps. In practice, red flag laws allow family members, intimate partners, or law enforcement to petition a court on their own for the temporary removal of a firearm from an individual who they think is at high risk of committing gun violence. These orders are known commonly as Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), though states use different names for them. The individuals who can petition for removal vary depending on the state. A judge may issue what is known as an ex-parte order for the removal, meaning that the person deemed to be at risk does not need to be present before the order may be signed. If a court approves the order, the subject of the order has the opportunity to be part of a hearing of the court to challenge the order before it takes effect, where they are allowed legal counsel, and the state must provide clear and convincing evidence that the individual is still at high-risk. If either the subject of the order does not desire a hearing, or the court rules in favor of the state, the order directs law enforcement to temporarily remove all of the firearms from the subject. These orders are civil procedures, not criminal procedures, so they do not go onto a person’s criminal record.

States where red flag laws have been enacted and are being considered

Connecticut and Indiana were the first states to enact red flag laws, in the wake of publically notable shootings. Research on the use of these laws indicates that individuals subject to these orders typically have many guns – on average, seven per person. Because the majority of people who would use a gun to end their life would have been legally allowed to purchase one on the day of their death, the way most of these laws are used are by concerned family members who fear a relative is at high-risk for suicide.

Two studies have shown the effectiveness of these laws:

  • A 2016 study has shown that for around every ten ERPOs issued, one life has been saved (source: Implementation and Effectiveness)
  • A 2018 study showed that Indiana’s law decreased its firearm suicide rate by 7.5% and Connecticut’s law decreased its firearm suicide rate by 13.7% (source: Effects of Seizure Laws)

Red flag laws have been implemented in 17 states as of 2019 and, depending on the state, have different names for the orders that they allow:

  • Extreme Risk Protection Orders
  • Risk-based gun removal orders
  • Red-flag law orders
  • Risk protection orders
  • Gun violence restraining orders (GVROs)
  • Proceedings for the Seizure and Retention of a Firearm
  • risk warrants


Waiting Periods

  • State waiting periods laws address weaknesses in federal firearms laws
    • Only ten states implement waiting periods as of 2019
  • They give law enforcement more time to perform background checks and create a “cooling off” period for buyers who might use firearms impulsively
  • Waiting periods:
    • decrease rates of guns moving from state to state for criminal use
    • decrease rates of firearm suicide

Red Flag laws

  • State red flag allows allow proactive, temporary removal of firearms from individuals deemed to be at high-risk for firearm violence
    • Orders are commonly known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders
  • Family members, intimate partners, and law enforcement are commonly enabled to petition a court for proactive removal
  • Individuals subject to an order may have legal counsel and force the state to show clear and convincing evidence before an order goes into effect
  • Studies in Indiana and Connecticut show a 7.5% and 13.7% reduction in suicide rates, respectively

Next up: Civilian Gun Carrying


  • Giffords Waiting Periods – a website showing use of waiting periods in different states
  • State Firearm Laws – a 2018 study examining the relationship between state firearm laws and the extent of interstate transfer of guns
  • Looking Down the Barrel – a 2017 study examining the effect of purchase delays on firearm-related homicides and suicides
  • Handgun Legislation – a 2017 study examing the extent to which four laws regulating handgun ownership were associated with statewide suicide rate changes
  • Implementation and Effectiveness – a 2016 study examining the effects of gun removals in Connecticut following its ERPO law
  • Effects of Seizure Laws – a 2018 study evaluating whether risk-based firearm seizure laws in Connecticut and Indiana affect suicide rates

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