Today in 1993: The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act is signed into law

November 30, 2012

Today in Legal HistoryPublic shootings in the United States are not necessarily a new development, but they have tragically become much more common occurrences in recent years.

In addition to the massacres at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, there have been four other major shootings in 2012 alone.

Although public gun violence has seen an increase in the past decade or so, what has not increased along with it is gun control legislation in response to these tragedies.

One of the likely reasons for this is the sway that anti-gun control organizations such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) have over Congress.

An apt example of this influence is found in the length of time it took to pass the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.

The Act was signed into law 19 years ago today, on November 30, 1993.

However, the Act was originally introduced six and a half years earlier, on February 4, 1987, and the length of time between when it was introduced and when it was finally signed into law is largely due to opposition from the NRA.

Moreover, the incident that prompted the creation of the Act – the injuring of Jim Brady during the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan – occurred five years before the bill’s introduction.

Jim Brady was President Reagan’s press secretary at the time that he was shot in the head, and, although he survived his injuries, he was left partially paralyzed for life.

According to Brady’s wife Sarah, had a background check been performed on the shooter, John Hinckley, Jr., would not have been able to purchase the handgun used to carry out the shooting, since he used a false address when making the gun purchase (which would have been caught by a background check).

In addition, the Gun Control Act of 1968 likely would have stopped the sale because of Hinckley’s history of psychiatric care and run-ins with law enforcement.

The Brady Act requires that those seeking to purchase handguns, rifles, or shotguns from federally licensed firearms dealers (FFLs) to undergo background checks.

For the first five years of the Act’s life, a five day waiting period was imposed before a gun sale could be made.

However, in 1998, checks could be done almost instantly through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which was created by the Brady Act.

Although the Act was passed successfully despite the NRA’s opposition, the NRA still sought to defeat the law in a manner becoming increasingly common today – a lawsuit.

That lawsuit was a challenge to the Act’s constitutionality on the basis that a provision that required state law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on prospective gun purchasers, that the provision was not severable from the rest of the Act, and that the Act must be invalidated in its entirety.

The Supreme Court eventually heard the case – Printz v. U.S. – and, although the Court struck down the provision in question as an infringement on state police powers, it upheld the rest of the law.

And with that, the Brady Act was finally settled law.

Printz was decided in June 1997, over 16 years since the Reagan assassination attempt.

By comparison, it only took Congress two years after Hinckley’s not guilty by reason of insanity verdict to pass the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which made it significantly more difficult to obtain such verdict again in federal court.

And gun control advocates’ hard fought success in the passage of the Brady Act has not been repeated since, despite the aforementioned increase in gun violence in the public sphere.

Perhaps one of the most significant ways that current gun control laws are lacking is the fact that federal authorities currently have no way to prevent the sale of firearms to individuals listed on the FBI Terrorist Watchlist as a suspected or confirmed terrorist.

We can only hope that it doesn’t take another tragedy like the Reagan assassination attempt to change at least this aspect of the law.