Gun Control Debate 2013: More States Have Waiting Periods For Abortion Than For Guns


Gun violence and abortion access seem to be front and center in many political debates these days. One feature these two subjects have in common is that it is left to the states to regulate access to both guns and abortions, including the imposition of waiting periods for both. It makes for an interesting comparison, as a map released by the Huffington Post below illustrates.


Despite abortion being legal for decades, in many places a woman cannot simply go to her provider and have the procedure done that day. Individual states regulate when, where, and by whom it can be performed, and some states are more restrictive than others.  Twenty-six states currently require a waiting period — usually 24 hours, but in two states as long as 72 hours — for a woman seeking an abortion, and this is often after required counseling and sometimes after a required ultrasound. It is not a great leap of intuition to deduce that the goal is to discourage women from getting abortions, or at least make it difficult. Often this is more than just a small inconvenience. Women may have to take time off work, arrange for child care, and travel a significant distance just to get to a clinic. Indeed, according to the Guttmacher Institute, there are only approximately 1,800 abortion providers in the U.S., and 87% of counties in the U.S. have no abortion provider at all, while 35% of women reside in those counties. So the waiting period means two trips are necessary, thus doubling the cost and time off needed.

So is this hassle having the desired effect? Apparently not. One study showed that the hassle of the waiting period did have the effect of postponing the procedure, increasing the number of post-first trimester abortions. Such later-term abortions more than double the risk of death or major complications. A recent study in Texas concluded that the vast majority of women there followed through and felt "extremely confident or confident" about their decision, despite the state's 24-hour waiting period and required ultrasound.  However, about a third of the women said that these hurdles had had a negative emotional impact.

What about waiting periods for guns? Eleven states and the District of Columbia have waiting periods for all or certain types of gun purchases, ranging from two days to two weeks. The strictest impose a wait on all gun purchases. These include Hawaii (14 days), California (10 days), and the District of Columbia (10 days). Is this a hardship? Unlikely. For one thing, the purchase of a gun is usually not time-sensitive in the same way an abortion is, and indeed, by providing a "cooling off period," the hope is that it will save lives. The patchwork of state laws and the portability of guns complicates any definitive study of the matter, and the initial data on the effectiveness of the waiting period is inconclusive, though it appears that one effect is a reduction in gun suicides by older Americans where a waiting period is in effect. But at least someone who has to wait to pick up their new gun probably won't have to take a day off, arrange for a babysitter, and travel to another time zone to do so. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, there are almost 130,000 federally licensed firearms dealers in the U.S., of which 51,438 are retail stores. Simple statistics appear to indicate that guns are closer at hand than an abortion provider. And while the waiting period on gun sales is not the success some had hoped for, at least it does no harm. It’s a different story if you’re facing an unwanted pregnancy.