What happens when it’s easier to get a gun than an abortion

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If you pay even the smallest amount of attention to American politics, you know that gun rights are seemingly inviolable. Even when unspeakable tragedies are committed with guns, even when the majority of people support common-sense gun control measures, it’s nearly impossible to put any barriers between wannabe gun owners and their weapons of choice.

On the other hand, abortion rights are constantly under attack, despite that fact that a strong majority of Americans believe abortion access should be legal. Abortion is a safe, common medical procedure, but the government just can’t resist getting between women and their doctors.

One area where this contrast is stark is in the new wave of legislation requiring waiting periods before women can obtain abortion care. Tracy Clark-Fiory did a comparison of waiting periods for abortions and for purchasing guns:

After North Carolina’s approval last week of a 72-hour wait period for abortion, Vocativ compared restrictions on terminating a pregnancy and buying a firearm. We found that more than twice as many states require wait times for abortion than guns. There are only 10 states, plus the District of Columbia, that require gun wait times, which range between 24 hours and 14 days. Those are California, Hawaii, Illinois, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, New Jersey and Wisconsin.

The rest of ‘em? They let you purchase a gun as fast as the seller can run a background check. When it comes to abortion, there are 26 states that make you wait anywhere from 18 to 72 hours. In short, you have to wait longer to buy a gun than get an abortion, but you’re much more likely to have to wait for the latter.

What is the practical effect of these laws? As Fiory points out, these laws are “generally introduced to help prevent impulsive or regrettable acts.” Which of these decisions is more likely to be impulsive?

Start with guns. Parents Against Gun Violence looked at news coverage to make a list of reasons people gave for shooting people just in May of 2015. A few examples:

I don’t like my neighbor, so I shot him. He also shot at me at the same time. (NV, 5/7)

My coworker pushed me and made me drop by bible, so I shot him. (GA, 5/12)

After he was released from the hospital, my husband wasn’t keeping up with his chores. So I shot him. (AK, 5/6)

The bartender put Clamato in my beer when I wanted tomato juice, so I shot him and his dog. (MT, 5/11)

Rather than let my ex-wife win custody, I shot my own daughter to death. (VA, 5/13)

These sound like anything but well-reasoned decisions. Despite what the NRA might want people to think about everyday superheroes defending their homes from intruders, much of the gun violence in this country is impulsive or accidental.

What happens when governments are actually able to put restrictions on gun access? Connecticut has a law that requiring a license to buy a handgun. A person has to be willing to go through background checks, a safety course, and an in-person application before purchasing a gun.  The results are encouraging:

Researchers at Johns Hopkins reviewed the homicide rate in the 10 years before the law was implemented and compared it to longitudinal estimates of what the rate would have been had the law not be enacted. The study found a 40 percent reduction in gun-related homicides. Bolstering what researchers say is the correlation between the permit law and the drop in gun homicides, there wasn’t a similar drop in non-firearm homicides.

The relationship between tighter regulations around handguns and fewer gun-related homicides is in keeping with previous research out of Johns Hopkins on what happened after Missouri repealed its own permit law.

Fiory also points to additional data on how these kinds of laws save lives:

Yet, after a five-day waiting law was imposed across the country for four years in the 90s, there was a decline in the number of men killing their significant others or ex-girlfriends with a gun. States with waiting periods also generally have lower levels of gun violence. “Ten states have waiting period laws and of those ten, seven are in the top ten states in the country in terms of lowest levels of gun violence,” says McLively.

Research has also shown a decrease in suicides associated with waiting periods. That’s where McLively says the scientific evidence is strongest. “Here we actually have rigorous scientific data,” he said. That includes a study of survivors of self-inflicted gunshots; more than half reported having suicidal thoughts for less than 24 hours prior to shooting themselves. That’s pretty striking when you consider that 90 percent of people who attempt suicide and fail do not go on to later kill themselves. As McLively puts it, “Suicide is an impulsive act.” Consider, too, that 90 percent of suicide attempts with a gun are fatal.

Advocates of waiting periods for abortion condescendingly assume that women aren’t really thinking through these decisions and that they may be acting as impulsively as these people who shoot someone over a glass of Clamato. Given how common abortion is in the US, there are millions of stories that contradict this. New York Magazine collected 26 of them, and these excerpts provide a clear contrast:

Rachel, 30: I have schizoaffective disorder. I’m fine on my meds, but I was scared I might hurt a child like my parents hurt me. When I started understanding my family’s history of mental illness, my husband and I said, “Okay, let’s stop the cycle of abuse and not have kids.” When I found out I was pregnant, I just started sobbing. The doctor slipped me some cards for clinics in different states. She couldn’t be pro-choice publicly—we live in a very religious area in West Virginia—but she knew that I couldn’t keep taking my meds during a pregnancy…There’s an intersection of stigma—mental illness and abortion. I can’t live off my meds. I can honestly say if I hadn’t had that abortion, I’d be dead.

Kassi, 29: Walking around pregnant when you don’t want to be is a nightmare. I wanted to tell everyone, but I was scared that they’d think I was stupid. I borrowed a car from my friend’s roommate. I wore a black turtleneck and very nice jeans—I wanted to impress the nurses. I think I even mentioned that I was in the honor society! Now I think, Who did I think I was? I had no idea that the average abortion patient is all of us.

Madeline, 18: I didn’t think I was ready for sex, but my boyfriend pushed it. Rape feels too strong, but it wasn’t really consensual. I didn’t think about the whole condom thing. I was going to a Catholic high school, and in health class we never talked about sex. The scariest part of the whole experience was not having anyone to share it with. I was in AP classes and couldn’t concentrate. I’d look around and think, No one knows. At night I’d think, What if I wait too long and then suddenly have this baby?

So what happens when you make abortion harder to access? Fiory points out that waiting periods don’t make a difference in women’s decisions:

Waiting periods as a whole have not shown to impact the abortion rate. Laws requiring two in-person clinic visits are believed to have a far greater impact on decreasing abortions. “Having to make two visits results in additional costs and difficulties scheduling,” says Sarah Roberts, assistant professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at University of California, San Francisco. “This could affect state abortion rates in a number of ways.” For example, research shows that two-visit laws are associated with higher rates of going out of state for abortions and Roberts speculates that this could be a result of women trying to avoid the requirement.

In general, though, women tend to be confident in their decision to have an abortion by the time they first show up at the clinic. As the Guttmacher Institute concluded in a review of relevant research, “In nearly nine out of 10 cases, women expressed high confidence in their abortion decision before they received any counseling; these women would likely not benefit from additional mandated counseling or delay.”

While waiting periods don’t change women’s minds, they do add extra emotional burden, logistical hassles and cost. The waiting period is often not exactly what it looks like on paper. With delays for weekends or holidays, a few days can turn into a week. And unlike with a gun, waiting for an abortion can make a huge difference in cost and how and where you can get a procedure done. For low-income women, it can mean much higher cost in childcare, transportation, lost wages and hotel stays.

When women become desperate it often doesn’t mean that they don’t have an abortion. They turn to whatever means they can find. When Jennifer Whelan’s daughter needed an abortion, she didn’t have health insurance, and the nearest clinic was 75 miles away. Pennsylvania requires women to receive counseling and then wait 24 hours, meaning two trips or an overnight stay.  She opted to buy abortion pills online, and when she took her daughter to the hospital to make sure she was all right, she was reported to the police. Whelan was sent to prison for doing what she thought was best for her daughter.  Kenlissa Jones was originally charged with murder for improperly taking abortion pills she ordered online (the charges were later reduced). Purvi Patel was sentenced to twenty years in prison when prosecutors argued that she had self-induced with abortion pills.

The evidence is clear: delaying access to guns saves lives. Delaying access to abortion puts emotional and fiscal burdens on women and can cost them their autonomy or even their freedom.

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Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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