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New Mexico becomes the latest state to require waiting periods for gun purchases


Fewer than a dozen states have a waiting period law for gun purchases. New Mexico is about to join them. Megan Myscofski, with member station KUNM reports, the law's effectiveness might depend on the state's ability to pass more like it, and we want to advise listeners, This story includes a discussion of suicide.


GEOFF HARMS: Hi. How you doing?


MYSCOFSKI: Geoff Harms welcomes me to his home just north of Los Angeles to talk about his friend, Dan Flock. Although they grew up together here in California, Dan moved to New Mexico as a young adult.

HARMS: Over the course of my life, we've been flying, driving back and forth to each other's place.

MYSCOFSKI: Geoff was practically a member of his family as he got married and raised his kids. Then in 2020, Dan's health began to decline.

HARMS: It was a really, really bad year.

MYSCOFSKI: Geoff says Dan, who was a carpenter, had multiple strokes and heart attacks.

HARMS: His craft kind of got lost because he couldn't remember a lot of things.

MYSCOFSKI: Geoff and another friend made plans to bring Dan out to LA and become his caretakers.

HARMS: He didn't want to be a burden. I would always say, don't worry about being a burden. We have you. We'll take care of you.

MYSCOFSKI: But then Geoff received news that Dan had died by suicide the night before he was planning to move. Several people close to Dan say they believe he bought the gun he used just before he died, although he had owned guns in the past. Geoff says it's hard to know what effect a waiting period law would have had.

HARMS: The law may have saved him, but he had an expiration date, you know, which was sad. So I don't know. It's that one I've had a hard time with.

MYSCOFSKI: Experts and lawmakers also grapple with that question. What impact will a law like this actually have? New Mexico had the third-highest rate of gun deaths and fourth highest of suicides in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Going into this year's one-month legislative session, Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham called on state lawmakers to enact policies to bring those numbers down.

MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: This is the most important work we're going to do, 'cause all the other stuff - the jobs, the futures, the homes, the education - meaningless if we can't keep New Mexicans safe.

MYSCOFSKI: Legislators introduced many bills in response, but only two made it to the governor's desk. One banned firearms at polling places, and the other created a weeklong waiting period for firearm purchases. Democratic Representative Andrea Romero sponsored the waiting period law. She says it could help curb multiple problems.

ANDREA ROMERO: Not only is it that cooling off period for harm to self, but also harm to others.

MYSCOFSKI: It also allows more time for the federal government to conduct the background check required by state law. Detractors of the new waiting period law, like Republican Representative Cathrynn Brown, say people need guns for protection.

CATHRYNN BROWN: When you're being abused or you're being threatened, you need some means of self-defense.

MYSCOFSKI: Several studies over the last few decades have shown that having a gun at home rarely prevents violence, but it does increase the risk of accidental deaths and suicides. Brown also says that in a state where about half of all households already have a gun, this won't change much, and she argues there's a lack of data regarding waiting period laws. Rosanna Smart says the data is there, but it's complicated. Smart co-directs RAND's Gun Policy in America initiative.

ROSANNA SMART: We have fairly moderate evidence to support that waiting period laws or imposing waiting period requirements on handguns or on firearms more broadly can reduce firearm suicides as well as reduce total homicides.

MYSCOFSKI: The United States collects thorough data on deaths, but not so much on gun ownership and crime. Guns are much more lethal than other methods of suicide. About 90% of attempts with a gun are fatal. Only about 4% of attempts using other methods and in death.

SMART: It really actually plays into a lot of a broader scientific literature on suicide and reducing access to lethal means.

MYSCOFSKI: Sixty percent of gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides, and KFF found that states with fewer firearm restrictions tend to have higher suicide rates. Smart says that while there is enough evidence to say waiting period laws are worthwhile, there needs to be more research.

SMART: It may mean that waiting period laws and their efficacy of depend on other aspects of the firearm law environment in a given state where it's implemented.

MYSCOFSKI: Gun safety advocates in New Mexico say more needs to be done. For example, a proposal to raise the age someone can buy a gun 18 to 21 didn't pass this year. But that could take a while here, where the legislature only meets one or two months every year and where even many Democrats are wary of limiting gun access.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Myscofski in Albuquerque.

SIMON: And if you were someone you know may be considering suicide, please call the suicide and crisis prevention hotline at 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Myscofski was a reporter with KUNM's Poverty and Public Health Project.