For years, Democrats have pushed to tighten restrictions around firearm purchases, such as expanding background checks to private sales and enacting red flag laws (which allow police or family members to petition a court to remove firearms from anyone deemed dangerous to themselves or others). Republicans who control the Legislature have largely resisted such measures, and after Uvalde, advocated for beefing up school security.
From the mid-1970s through 2015, Wisconsin had another type of gun law on the books: one that prohibited a handgun-buyer from taking possession of the gun until 48 hours after the background check had been started.
State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, introduced a 2015 bill — which was approved — that instead allows buyers to take possession of the gun immediately after they clear a background check.
In a June 5, 2022 appearance on Capital City Sunday, Wanggaard was asked if that 48-hour waiting period should be reinstated. His response: “Absolutely not.”
“I don’t know that that saves anything,” Wanggaard said of the waiting period. “If somebody’s decided that they’re going to take their life, they’re going to take their life.”
The senator’s remark is off-base. While research on the effectiveness of 48-hour waiting periods on reducing overall violence is mixed, studies show it can reduce suicide deaths in particular. Furthermore, experts say many suicide deaths are preventable.
Let’s take a look.
Suicide deaths widely recognized as preventable
When asked for evidence to back up Wanggaard’s claim, a spokesperson from his office wrote that the remark was based on his three decades as a police officer and the experiences of several people he knew who died by suicide.
Because early intervention with potentially suicidal people has shown effectiveness, the spokesperson wrote, Wanggaard also believes if a person thinks someone they know may be thinking of suicide, they should reach out and get that person help.
Wanggaard’s staff cited a June 2005 study referenced in a more recent report from the medical journal BMC Psychiatry about the likelihood of a person who had attempted suicide trying to do so again.
But the study’s results disprove Wanggaard’s claim that a person who decides they want to die by suicide will do so — in the five years following a previous attempt, 37% made at least one more attempt that did not result in death, and just 6.7% did die by suicide. That means that the majority of the people in that study had at one point decided they were going to take their own life and ultimately did not.
Suicide is widely recognized as preventable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it can be prevented through better treatment for people at risk of suicide, crisis intervention, stronger supports for mental health and financial stability and reduction of access to lethal means for people at risk of suicide, among others.
In a 2008 report about guns and suicide, David Hemenway, director of Harvard University’s Injury Control Research Center, wrote that studies show that “most attempters act on impulse, in moments of panic or despair. Once the acute feelings ease, 90% do not go on to die by suicide.”
Can 48-hour waiting periods for gun purchases help reduce suicide deaths?
Wanggaard’s spokesperson also sent a July 3, 2017 Reuters article about a study from the Annals of Internal Medicine where the lead researcher had written that “few” suicide deaths could be prevented by limiting firearm access for those with a substance abuse disorder, mental health condition or a history of suicide attempts.
But the study isn’t saying that limiting firearm access won’t reduce suicide deaths. It’s saying that limiting access for that specific group of people won’t reduce them by much — and the researchers actually argue that those confines are too narrow.
“We suggest that prevention of firearm suicide should be expanded beyond the current focus on these patients to include other persons at risk for suicide,” the study says.
It’s worth noting that it also calls for expanding attention to suicide prevention measures beyond an exclusive focus on firearms to include other common means of suicide.
Evidence about whether 48-hour waiting periods on gun purchases can reduce overall violence is mixed, as laid out in a Feb. 2, 2022 fact-check from PolitiFact Wisconsin examining a state Democratic lawmaker’s claim about a similar issue.
But recent studies have found a correlation between waiting periods and a reduction in suicide deaths specifically, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor John Gross told us.
A March 2, 2018 analysis of previous studies of the relationship between waiting periods and suicides from the RAND Corporation found moderate evidence that waiting periods reduce suicides by firearm, and limited evidence that they reduce overall suicide deaths.
And a March 24, 2018 fact-check of Doug Jones, a Democrat and then-U.S. senator from Alabama, found the same: PolitiFact National rated Mostly True his claim that states that have implemented such waiting periods have seen significant decreases in suicides. Some professors said more research and different modeling may be necessary to make a final determination.
When asked whether Wisconsin should reinstate the 48-hour waiting period for handgun purchases, Wanggaard said no because he doesn’t know “that that saves anything,” and “if somebody’s decided that they’re going to take their life, they’re going to take their life.”
But research shows a link between waiting periods and reduced suicide deaths, especially suicides by firearm.
Separately, evidence suggests that the majority of people who at one point sought to die by suicide do not do so.
We rate his claim False.