Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993) (Major Acts of Congress)
Keith Rollins Eakins
On March 30, 1981, twenty-five-year-old John W. Hinckley, Jr., lurked in a crowd of people clustering around a Washington, D.C., hotel waiting for President Ronald Reagan to finish delivering a speech. As President Reagan emerged from the hotel waving to the crowd and heading for his limousine, Hinckley took aim with a .22 caliber Rohm RG-14 revolver and fired off six rounds. The president was hit in his lung, and three others accompanying him were wounded. His press secretary, James S. Brady, sustained a wound to his forehead that disabled him permanently.
In response to the tragedy, Sarah Brady, James Brady's wife, became highly active in the gun control movement. In 1989 she became the chairperson of Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI), the most prominent interest group lobbying for legislative regulation of firearms. Two years later Ms. Brady became chairperson of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, HCI's sister organization, seeking to reduce gun violence through education, research, and legal advocacy. Sarah Brady and gun control proponents believed handguns were being acquired too easily in violation of the law. The Gun Control Act of 1968 made it illegal to sell handguns to felons, drug addicts, those who were adjudicated "mental defectives" or committed to mental institutions, those under court orders restraining them from stalking or harassing, and those convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence. Yet in reality, criminals and others who were ineligible to buy firearms could easily purchase guns by lying about their background. Brady and other gun control advocates worked to pass a law mandating background checks and a waiting period on purchases of guns.
In 1987 the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was introduced into Congress, but the backers of the bill faced a full frontal assault waged by the National Rifle Association (NRA). This powerful lobbying group was joined by prominent politicians such as Presidents Reagan and Bush and Speaker of the House Tom Foley, Democrat of Washington, in opposing the bill. Through aggressive lobbying tactics and the introduction of a substitute bill by NRA-backed Democrat Bill McCollum of Florida, the NRA successfully torpedoed the Brady bill.
Despite losing initial battles, the proponents of the Brady Act continued their efforts to push through the labyrinth of congressional politics. The fortunes of the Brady Act improved greatly in 1992 with the election of President William Jefferson Clinton, who announced his full support for the bill. Meanwhile, the influence of the formidable NRA was waning. The gun lobby's traditional tactic was to oppose vociferously even minimal gun regulation on the grounds that it was a slippery slope to a full-scale ban on guns. But the American public perceived this no-holds-barred approach to be extreme. Polls indicated that most people believed a short waiting period and background check were reasonable restrictions. Moreover, any threat of a veto, a certainty during the presidencies of Reagan and Bush, and needing a twothirds congressional vote to override, was gone. President Clinton not only expressed public support for the bill, but also worked to secure its passage in the Senate. Eventually, both the House and Senate approved the measure, yet the NRA succeeded in getting a provision abolishing the five-day waiting period after five years because a National Instant Check System (NICS) was supposed to be in place by then. On November 30, 1993, six years after its introduction, the Brady Act became law (P.L. 103-159, 107 Stat. 1536).
The NRA then moved its attack on the Brady Act to the federal courts by financing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law. In June 1997 the NRA won a minor victory when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the portion of the bill requiring state officials to conduct background checks. In Printz v. United States (1997) the Court held that the statute, by requiring state officials to conduct background checks on would-be gun purchasers, violated the constitutional principles of federalism underlying the Tenth Amendment. In reality, the effect of the decision on gun control efforts was minimal. The provisions invalidated by the Court were, by law, to be phased out by November 1998 when the NICS was to be in place. Moreover, the vast majority of law enforcement agencies continued the background checks on a voluntary basis. Yet debate about handgun control continues. For instance, HCI and other gun control groups would like to establish a five-day waiting period because they believe that it would reduce crimes of passion by allowing a "cooling off" period prior to gun purchases. Additionally, they contend that more
Image Pop-UpPresident Bill Clinton signs the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, with James Brady seated to his right. Brady, for whom the bill was named, was shot in the head and permanently injured during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Sarah Brady (middle of those standing), James Brady's wife, became a prominent and influential advocate for stricter gun control.
See also: GUN CONTROL ACT OF 1968.
Patterson, Samuel C., and Keith R. Eakins. "Congress and Gun Control." In The Changing Politics of Gun Control, ed. by John M. Bruce and Clyde Wilcox. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.
Spitzer, Robert J. The Politics of Gun Control. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House, 1995.
Sugarmann, Josh. National Rifle Association: Money, Firepower and Fear. Washington. DC: National Press Books, 1992.
Brady Campaign. "Waiting Periods and Background Checks." <http://www.bradycampaign.com/facts/index.asp>.