The presence of a gun dangerously compounds the risk of impulsive acts of violence, especially suicide. Waiting periods, or “cooling off” laws, create an important window of time for gun purchasers to reconsider their intentions, which can lead to a change of heart and a saved life. In addition, waiting periods provide additional time for the completion of a thorough background check.

Background

Waiting period laws require a certain number of days to pass between when a gun is first purchased and when the buyer may actually take possession of it. The two main functions of waiting periods are to:

  • Give law enforcement officials sufficient time to properly perform a background check on prospective purchasers.
  • Provide a “cooling off” period to help guard against impulsive acts of violence—especially suicide.

There is no federal waiting period. As described below, federal law allows a dealer to deliver a gun to a purchaser as soon as a background check is completed (which usually only takes a few minutes), or after three business days have passed—even if a background check still hasn’t been completed. This gap in the law, known as “default proceed” or the Charleston Loophole, allowed Dylann Roof to obtain a firearm and kill nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 16, 2016.1 This was not an isolated case; each year, over 3,000 ineligible persons receive firearms through this default provision.2 For such cases, it takes the FBI an average of 25 days to determine that a purchaser is ineligible to receive firearms.3 As a result, the FBI has recommended extending the research time to complete background checks to reduce the number of prohibited people—such as those subject to domestic violence restraining orders—able to purchase firearms by default.4 For more information on this issue, see our summary on Background Check Procedures.

In addition to providing a wider window for federal authorities to complete important background checks, waiting periods also help reduce the occurrence of suicides and other impulsive acts of violence. Suicides constitute two-thirds of all gun deaths in the U.S., with more than 21,000 suicides by firearm per year. Guns are an extremely common means of suicide; half of all suicides in the U.S. are carried out with a firearm.5

When compared to other means of attempting suicide, guns are uniquely lethal. More than 90% of suicide attempts with a firearm result in death.6 Suicide attempts by jumping, in comparison, carry a 34% fatality rate, and attempts by drug poisoning only a 2% fatality rate.7 In other words, a person who attempts suicide by a method other than firearm is more likely to live than a person who uses a gun.

This fact is incredibly important because almost all people who survive a suicide attempt go on to live out their lives and do not subsequently die by suicide.8 Because of the impulsive nature of suicide, immediate access to firearms is a major mortality risk factor and one that waiting periods can help address.

The tragic story of Kerry Lewiecki shows what can happen when guns are immediately accessible to people with sudden suicidal impulses. In the summer of 2010, Kerry was a 27-year-old law school graduate with a supportive family, large network of friends, and promising future. He was engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Sara Miller, and their wedding was just a few months away. However, to the complete shock of everyone who knew him, on June 24, 2010, Kerry bought a gun and within just a few hours used it to take his own life.9 Kerry purchased the gun in Oregon, where—as in most states—waiting periods are not required. His father told reporters that “had he not been able to purchase a handgun so easily, I think there’s a good chance it might not have happened.”10 Given that many people contemplate suicide for only a few hours before making an attempt, it’s easy to see how a waiting period of just a few days could have made an enormous difference in Kerry’s case and in other’s like his across the nation.

In fact, states with waiting period laws for gun purchases have lower rates of suicide. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that states with waiting period laws had 51% fewer firearm suicides and a 27% lower overall suicide rate than states without such laws.11 When South Dakota repealed its 48-hour waiting period for handgun purchases in 2009, overall suicides the following year increased by 7.6%.12

Preventing immediate access to the most lethal means of suicide is a lifesaving policy that is supported by gun owners and the general public alike. Americans strongly support waiting periods for firearm purchases. A December 2011 poll found that 74% of people without a firearm in the home support a five-day waiting period for the purchase of firearms, while 66% of non-NRA gun-owners and 50% of NRA members support this measure.13 Similarly, a survey conducted for the New England Journal of Medicine in January 2013 found that 76% of Americans, including 67% of gun owners, support giving law enforcement up to 5 business days, if needed, to complete a background check for gun buyers.14 Implementing waiting periods nationwide for gun purchases would reduce the more than 21,000 firearm suicides that occur each year in this country.

Summary of Federal Law

There is no federal waiting period. Under the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a dealer may transfer a firearm to a prospective purchaser as soon as he or she passes a background check.15 If the FBI is unable to complete a background check within three business days, the dealer may complete the transfer by default.16

Federal law doesn’t require private sellers to perform background checks on gun purchasers. Accordingly, persons purchasing firearms from private sellers may take immediate possession of their weapons, unless state or local law provides otherwise.17

Summary of State Law

Nine states and the District of Columbia have waiting periods that apply to the purchase of some or all firearms.18 See our summary on Background Check Procedures for state laws that prohibit gun sales or transfers until a background check is completed.

Other states require gun purchasers to obtain a license or permit prior to the purchase. Licensing laws of this kind play a similar role to waiting period laws. See our policy page on Licensing for information about licensing laws.

States Imposing Waiting Periods for Purchases of All Firearms

California – 10 days19
District of Columbia – 10 days20
Hawaii – 14 days21
Illinois – 24 hours for long guns; 72 hours for handguns22
Rhode Island – 7 days23

California, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia impose a statutory waiting period on all firearm purchases. Subject to limited exceptions, California and the District of Columbia require a ten-day waiting period for all firearm purchases.24 Rhode Island imposes a seven-day waiting period for all purchases of firearms unless the purchaser is a law enforcement officer.25 However, the seller must deliver the firearm to the purchaser if, within seven days, he or she does not receive background check information disqualifying the potential buyer from purchasing the firearm.26

In Hawaii, all firearm purchases require issuance of a permit, and no permit may be issued earlier than 14 calendar days after the date of the application.27 This does not include sales to state or federally licensed dealers, law enforcement officers, persons with a license to carry a handgun, or where a firearm is brought into the state and registered in accordance with the state’s registration statute.28 All permits must be issued or the application denied before the twentieth day from the date of application.29

In Illinois, it is unlawful for anyone to deliver a firearm prior to the expiration of the statutory waiting periods, which are 24 hours for long guns and 72 hours for handguns.30 For transfers through licensed dealers and at gun shows, the Department of State Police must approve the transfer or inform the seller of the applicant’s ineligibility within these waiting periods.31 The waiting periods begin to run at the time an application to purchase the firearm is made. “Application” is defined to mean “when a buyer and seller reach an agreement to purchase a firearm.”32 Non-residents of Illinois who purchase long guns at gun shows are not subject to these waiting periods.33

States Imposing Waiting Periods for Purchases of Handguns and Assault Weapons

Minnesota – 7 days34

Minnesota imposes either a five-day or a seven-day waiting period (the law is unclear) on transfers of handguns and assault weapons from the day the dealer delivers a transfer report to the police chief or sheriff.35 The police chief or sheriff may waive part of the waiting period in writing if he or she finds that the transferee requires access to a handgun or assault weapon because of a threat to the life of the transferee or a member of the transferee’s household.36 The waiting period does not apply to transfers by private sellers.37

States Imposing Waiting Periods for Handguns Only

Florida – 3 days38
Iowa – 3 days39
Maryland – 7 days40
New Jersey – 7 days41

Florida, Iowa, Maryland, and New Jersey have waiting periods for handgun purchases only.42

3-Day Waiting Periods

Florida43 imposes a mandatory three-day waiting period, excluding weekends and legal holidays, between the retail purchase and delivery of any handgun.44 In Iowa, no handgun may be transferred until the transferee obtains a permit to purchase the handgun, which becomes valid three days after the date of application.45

7-Day Waiting Periods

In Maryland, any person who transfers a handgun must wait seven days from the time a prospective purchaser completes an application to purchase the firearm and the application is forwarded to the Secretary of the Maryland State Police.46 Similarly, New Jersey prohibits retail firearm dealers from delivering a handgun to any person unless he or she possesses a valid permit to purchase a handgun and at least seven days have elapsed since the date of application for the permit.47 Since each permit is valid for only one handgun purchase, this effectively creates a seven-day waiting period for all handgun sales.48

Exceptions to Waiting Period Laws

Among states with statutory waiting periods only for handguns, Florida and Iowa exempt concealed weapons permit holders from these waiting periods. Florida also exempts persons trading in another handgun. Most states exempt sales to law enforcement.

Model Law

View the Law Center’s September 2011 publication, Model Laws for a Safer America: Seven Regulations to Promote Responsible Gun Ownership and Sales, which includes a model law imposing a ten-day waiting period prior to the sale of a firearm.

Key Legislative Elements

The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered. A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.

  • A waiting period is established for all firearm purchases, of sufficient duration to allow a cooling-off period prior to the purchaser taking possession of the firearm (California, District of Columbia-10 days, Hawaii-14 days, Rhode Island-7 days).
  • Permits to carry firearms in public do not exempt a purchaser from the waiting period (California, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, District of Columbia).
  • Transfer of firearms is prohibited until the background check process has been completed, regardless of whether the waiting period has elapsed (Maryland).49
Notes
  1. Michael S. Schmidt, “Background Check Flaw Let Dylann Roof Buy Gun, F.B.I. Says,” New York Times, July 10, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/11/us/background-check-flaw-let-dylann-roof-buy-gun-fbi-says.html?_r=0. ⤴︎
  2. According to the FBI, 3,722 ineligible persons receive firearms through the default proceed provision in 2012. Criminal Justice Information Services Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Operations 2012, at http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/nics/reports/2012-operations-report. In 2013, this figure was 3,375. Criminal Justice Information Services Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Operations 2013, at https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/about-us/cjis/nics/reports/2013-operations-report. ⤴︎
  3. U.S. General Accounting Office, Gun Control: Implementation of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System 13 (Feb. 2000), at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/g100064.pdf. ⤴︎
  4. Id. ⤴︎
  5. In 2015 there were 22,018 suicides by firearm (out of a total of 44,193 suicides), and in 2014 there were 21,334 suicides by firearm (out of a total of 42,773 suicides). Nat’l Ctr. for Injury Prevention & Control, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Web-Based Injury Statistics Query & Reporting System (WISQARS) Injury Mortality Reports, 1999-2014, for National and Regional (last visited Nov. 9, 2016), www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/fatal_injury_reports.html. ⤴︎
  6. A. Elnour and J. Harrison, “Lethality of Suicide Methods,” Inj Prev 14 (2008): 39-45, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18245314; Matthew Miller et al., “The Epidemiology of Case Fatality Rates for Suicide in the Northeast,” Annals Of Emergency Med. 43 no. 6 (2004): 723-30, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15159703. ⤴︎
  7. Id. ⤴︎
  8. Matthew Miller et al., “Suicide Mortality in the United States: The Importance of Attending to Method in Understanding Population-Level Disparities in the Burden of Suicide,” Ann. Rev. Pub. Health 33 (2012): 393-408, http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031811-124636?journalCode=publhealth.)) Contrary to common belief, the vast majority of suicide survivors recover and do not remain suicidal.

    In addition, suicide is a highly impulsive act. A variety of studies confirm that most suicide survivors contemplated their actions for only a brief period of time—often less than 24 hours—before making a suicide attempt. ((C. Williams et al., “Impulsive Suicidal Behavior,” J Clin Psychol. 36 no. 1, (1980): 90-94, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/1097-4679(198001)36:1%3C90::AID-JCLP2270360104%3E3.0.CO;2-F/abstract; E. Deisenhammer et al., “The Duration of the Suicidal Process: How Much Time is Left for Intervention between Consideration and Accomplishment of a Suicide Attempt?,” J Clin Psychiatry 70 no. 1, (2009): 19-24, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19026258. ⤴︎

  9. Elisabeth Rosenthal, “Suicide, With No Warning,” New York Times, Mar. 8, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/10/sunday-review/suicide-with-no-warning.html?_r=0. ⤴︎
  10. “Suicide of University Alumnus Calls Oregon Gun Policy into Question,” Daily Emerald, Apr. 22, 2011, https://www.dailyemerald.com/2011/04/22/suicide-of-university-alumnus-calls-oregon-gun-policy-into-question. ⤴︎
  11. Michael D. Anestis and Joye C. Anestis, “Suicide Rates and State Laws Regulating Access and Exposure to Handguns,” Am. J of Pub. Health 105 no. 10, (2015): 2049-58, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26270305. ⤴︎
  12. Id. ⤴︎
  13. John Sides, Gun owners vs. the NRA: What the polling shows, Wash. Post (Dec. 2012) at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/12/23/gun-owners-vs-the-nra-what-the-polling-shows. ⤴︎
  14. Colleen L. Barry et al., Perspective: After Newtown—Public Opinion on Gun Policy and Mental Illness, 368 New Eng. J. Med. 1077-1081 (March 21, 2013) at http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1300512?query=featured_home&&. ⤴︎
  15. 18 U.S.C. § 922(t)(1). ⤴︎
  16. Id. ⤴︎
  17. Detailed information about private sales is contained in our summary on Universal Background Checks & the Private Sale Loophole. ⤴︎
  18. Wisconsin repealed its 48-hour waiting period for the purchase of a handgun in 2015. 2015 WI S.B. 35. South Dakota repealed its 48-hour waiting period for the purchase of a handgun in 2009. 2009 S.D. ALS 122. ⤴︎
  19. Cal. Penal Code §§ 26815(a), 26950-27140, 27540(a), 27600-27750. ⤴︎
  20. D.C. Code Ann. § 22-4508. ⤴︎
  21. Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 134-2(e). Hawaii’s waiting period does not apply to subsequent purchases of long guns during the year following an initial purchase. ⤴︎
  22. 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-3(A)(g). ⤴︎
  23. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 11-47-35(a)(1), 11-47-35.1, 11-47-35.2. ⤴︎
  24. In California, if the California Department of Justice (DOJ) cannot determine within the ten-day period whether the prospective purchaser is prohibited from possessing a firearm, DOJ may notify the dealer and prospective purchaser of this fact and obtain up to a total of 30 days to complete the background check. See Cal Penal Code § 28220(f). ⤴︎
  25. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 11-47-35(a)(1), 11-47.35.1 and 11-47-35.2(a). ⤴︎
  26. R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-47-35(a)(2) and 11-47-35.2(b ⤴︎
  27. Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 134-2(a). ⤴︎
  28. Firearms brought into the state must be registered within five days of arrival. Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 134-3(a). ⤴︎
  29. Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 134-2(e). Permits issued for long guns may be used for subsequent purchases of long guns for one year from date of issuance. Id. ⤴︎
  30. 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-3(A)(g). ⤴︎
  31. 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/3.1; 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-3(A)(g). ⤴︎
  32. 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-3(A)(g). ⤴︎
  33. Id. ⤴︎
  34. Minn. Stat. § 624.7132, subds. 4, 12. Minn. Stat. § 624.7132, subd. 4 is unclear with respect to the length of the waiting period, referring both to a “five business day waiting period” and a “seven day waiting period.” ⤴︎
  35. Minn. Stat. § 624.7132, subds. 4. This provision refers both to a “five business day waiting period” and a “seven day waiting period.” ⤴︎
  36. Id. ⤴︎
  37. Minn. Stat. § 624.7132, subd. 12. ⤴︎
  38. Florida’s three-day waiting period excludes weekends and legal holidays, and does not apply to a handgun being purchased by a holder of a concealed weapons permit. Fla. Stat. Ann. § 790.0655(1)-(2); Fla. Const. art. VIII, § 5(b). ⤴︎
  39. Iowa Code § 724.20. ⤴︎
  40. Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety §§ 5-123 – 5-125. Maryland’s waiting period applies to the transfer of “regulated firearms,” which are defined as handguns and assault weapons, but the transfer of assault weapons is now generally banned. See Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety § 5-101; Md. Code, Crim. Law § 4-303 (as amended by 2013 Md. S.B. 281, effective October 1, 2013). ⤴︎
  41. N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:58-2a(5)(a), 2C:58-3f. ⤴︎
  42. In addition, licensed dealers in Washington are prohibited from transferring a handgun to a purchaser until the purchaser passes a background check, or ten business days have elapsed from the date the licensed dealer requested a background check, whichever is earlier. Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 9.41.092. Furthermore, dealers must await the completion of a background check for up to 60 days for anyone without a valid Washington driver’s license or state identification card, or for anyone who has not been a resident for the previous 90 consecutive days. Id. However, these waiting periods do not apply to concealed handgun license holders. Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 9.41.090(1). ⤴︎
  43. Florida’s constitution authorizes counties to enact three to five-day waiting periods, excluding weekends and legal holidays, in connection with the sale of any firearm occurring within the county. “Sale” is defined to include gun shows and other events open to the public outside of retail firearms establishments. Concealed weapons permit holders are not subject to such waiting periods when purchasing a firearm. Fla. Const. art. VIII, § 5(b). ⤴︎
  44. Fla. Stat. Ann. § 790.0655(1)-(2). ⤴︎
  45. Iowa Code § 724.20. After the permit is issued, the holder may purchase additional handguns without a waiting period for the duration of the permit (one year). ⤴︎
  46. Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety §§ 5-123(a), 5-124(a)(1). ⤴︎
  47. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-2a(5)(a). ⤴︎
  48. The time period to obtain the permit itself can be as long as 30 days (45 days for non-residents) while the application is processed. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-3f. ⤴︎
  49. Maryland has addressed the problem of “default proceeds” under federal law, which results when a firearm is transferred at the end of the waiting period, even if the background check has not been completed. Additional information about the problem of default proceeds and the approaches used to address the problem is contained in our summary on Background Check Procedures. ⤴︎