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Digging into the research on Democrats’ proposed gun laws in Colorado

March 16, 2023, 8:06 am
State Sen. Tom Sullivan speaks at a press conference at the Colorado Capitol to introduce a suite of gun violence prevention bills on Feb. 23. (Sara Wilson/Colorado Newsline).

Colorado Democrats introduced a slate of bills aimed at gun violence prevention in February, all four of which have been passed by at least one chamber of the General Assembly.

While the Democrats’ package came partially in response to last year’s mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs, researchers agree that it is difficult to measure policies’ effectiveness in reducing mass shootings. While highly visible, mass shootings are statistically rare, and policy solutions aimed at preventing them largely rely on anecdotal evidence or speculation on how a previous event could have been prevented.

“As you get to these really emotionally charged incidents and people are really groping for solutions, it’s hard to hear that the evidence is inconclusive,” said Rosanna Smart, the co-director of the RAND Corporation’s Gun Policy in America Initiative, which studies various firearm policies. “It may be that there is a lot of uncertainty about whether policies may be effective in preventing mass shootings specifically, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.”

“No strong evidence of effect is not the same as evidence of no effect,” Smart added. “Just because current evidence is inconclusive doesn’t mean that policies are ineffective and that you shouldn’t try them. Small changes in gun deaths are massive from a social cost perspective.”

Most of the research conducted on gun-control policies has focused on whether they reduce firearm-related suicides and homicides. Experts generally agree that there is low to moderate evidence that policies like waiting periods and minimum age purchasing requirements reduce mortality from gun violence, especially suicides.

Waiting periods ‘beneficial’ in reducing suicides

House Bill 23-1219, introduced by Democrats Rep. Judy Amabile of Boulder, Rep. Meg Froelich of Englewood, Sen. Tom Sullivan of Centennial and Sen. Chris Hansen of Denver, would require a three-day waiting period for all firearm purchases. The bill was subject to an overnight filibuster from Republicans last week, but ended up passing through the House on third reading on a 44-20 vote.

Experts say that waiting periods are effective in reducing incidences of gun violence, including both gun homicides and suicides.

The bill cites a 2017 study that determined waiting periods are associated with a 17% reduction in gun homicides over the sample period and up to 11% reduction in gun suicides.

Bill sponsors and supporters cast the legislation as a strong deterrent in reducing suicide by providing a “cooling off period” for those in crisis, even if the research doesn’t necessarily prove that. During a lengthy committee hearing and floor debate, lawmakers shared stories of loved ones with suicidal ideation that a waiting period could have helped.

“It may be the case that suicide has more persistent underlying factors that motivate it, so maybe waiting periods are less effective at deterring suicides than homicides. But we have at least some evidence that waiting periods are beneficial in reducing suicides,” said Chris Poliquin, an assistant professor at UCLA’s Anders School of Management who was the co-author of that 2017 study.

What is less clear to experts is whether the length of a mandatory waiting period makes any difference in its effectiveness. Colorado’s proposed legislation sits on the low end of waiting period policies, with Hawaii and its two-week waiting period sitting on the high end.

Researchers at the RAND Corporation determined that waiting periods have a moderate impact on reducing suicide and violent crime.

“The evidence isn’t strong about whether three days or seven days or 15 days is more effective, but states that enact waiting periods tend to see reductions in gun violence,” Smart said.

Opponents of the waiting period bill argue, in part, that it could delay needed self-protection, but there is little empirical evidence available to assess how often that occurs.

The bill was introduced in the Senate on March 14 and awaits its first hearing in the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

Increasing minimum age could have minimal effects

Another bill in the package, Senate Bill 23-169, would raise the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21. It was approved by the Senate on March 13 and is now in the House for consideration.

That bill is sponsored by Democrats Sen. Kyle Mullica of Thornton, Sen. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge, Rep. Monica Duran of Wheat Ridge and Rep. Eliza Hamrick of Centennial.

Mark Gius, an economics professor at Quinnipiac University who has studied minimum age laws, said that the policy’s effectiveness in reducing homicides and overall crime levels has not been the focus of robust research, which has instead been assessed for its potential to reduce youth suicide.

“The effect on overall crime may be minimal. For suicides, there may be a good effect,” he said. “Typically, a lot of suicides aren’t planned in advance. They are spur of the moment things. So if someone tries to go buy a gun and they are prevented because of an age restriction, it may help with that.”

At the same time, however, Gius noted that many young people between 18 and 21 years old who want to buy a gun probably grew up around firearm culture and might already have access to a gun without purchasing it themselves.

“I think the effects (on suicide) would be minimal, to be honest,” he said.

The RAND Corporation determined that minimum age requirements have a moderate effect on suicides, but are inconclusive when it comes to mass shootings, unintentional injuries and violent crime.

The effectiveness of minimum age requirements and waiting periods might be countered by the ease with which people can access firearms from places other than legal retailers, experts say. Often, that can be accessing a gun that is already in the house that belongs to another family member.

“It’s odd for a 17 or 18 year old to want to go buy a gun if he has no experience with guns whatsoever with family or friends,” Gius said.

The bill was introduced in the House on March 14 and assigned to the State, Civic, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.

Scarce data on red flag laws

A third bill aimed at preventing gun violence prevention, also passed by the Senate on March 13, would expand eligible petitioners to request an extreme risk protection order against a potentially dangerous person. These are also known as red flag laws.

That bill is sponsored by Democrats Sullivan of Centennial, Senate President Steve Fenberg of Boulder, House Assistant Majority Leader Jennifer Bacon of Denver and Rep. Mike Weissman of Aurora.

Experts say that while ERPO laws are relatively effective according to anecdotal evidence, there needs to be more research on the policy. Indiana and Connecticut have had ERPO laws on the books for the longest — since 2004 and 1999 respectively — with other states passing similar laws over the past decade.

That provides a small, limited sample size for researchers to study its effectiveness in the long term.

“Red flag laws are relatively new, so we don’t have a lot of robust scientific evidence there. But they do have the advantage of being fairly targeted interventions,” Poliquin said.

Smart said that as more states roll out red flag laws and there is an opportunity for pre- and post-policy comparison, there will be more opportunity for research.

Still, she said it’s hard to generalize the effectiveness of red flag laws as each state implements them differently and there is significant variation in whether local law enforcement agencies actually use them. RAND found inconclusive evidence for the laws’ effectiveness in reducing both suicide and violent crime.

Colorado’s proposed ERPO expansion would allow educators, health care workers and district attorneys to seek petitions. It also includes a provision aimed at increasing public awareness about the law, and there is simultaneous work within the state’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention for ERPO education.

The bill was introduced in the House on March 14 and assigned to the Judiciary Committee.

Other policy ideas

Gius said that one potential way to curb gun violence, particularly mass shootings, would be to utilize credit card activity to flag large purchases of firearms and ammunition. Last fall, major credit card companies adopted a new merchant code for sales at gun stores. He suggested that law enforcement could more closely monitor activity codes for the kind of large purchases mass shooters often make before they commit their crime.

“You could identify who is spending thousands of dollars (on firearms),” he said. “It’s not going to pick up people who use cash or go through private sales, but typically mass shooters spend a lot of money before their crime.”

Gius pointed to the gunman who carried out a mass shooting last year at an Uvalde, Texas elementary school, who bought two semi-automatic rifles and over 1,600 bullets a few days before the shooting.

State legislatures could authorize law enforcement to review credit card activity and even set a threshold for when spending at a gun store would get flagged for review.

Another policy that could prevent gun violence would be to strengthen the state’s safe storage and child-access prevention law, Smart suggested. It could be strengthened by requiring safe storage at all times a gun is unattended, rather than only when certain people are likely to be present.

RAND found strong evidence that strict child-access prevention laws can decrease suicide, unintentional deaths and violent crime.

“(Colorado’s law) is not the strongest version, which is where the evidence is more robust that these laws can actually have bite,” Smart said.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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