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The Brady Bill Became Law 25 Years Ago On This Date

What do you think of the Brady Bill on its anniversary?

by Countable | 11.29.18

On November 30, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (commonly known as the Brady Bill) into law. It required that background checks be conducted before an individual can buy a firearm from a federally licensed dealer, and prohibited certain persons from shipping or receiving firearms.

Why did it come up?

On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan and three others were shot and wounded by a gunman attempting to assassinate the president. While Reagan was seriously wounded, he and the two law enforcement officers who were shot ultimately fully recovered from their injuries.

The fourth person shot was White House Press Secretary James Brady, who suffered brain damage and was permanently disabled by his injuries. His death in 2014 was officially considered to be a homicide because it stemmed from complications caused by his gunshot wounds.

The first version of the Brady Bill was introduced as an amendment to an anti-drug abuse bill in 1988, but it was stripped from the final version of the bill and efforts to pass it were stymied for several years.

On March 28, 1991, almost a decade after he was taken there for life-saving surgery following his attempted assassination, Reagan delivered a speech at George Washington University and endorsed the Brady Bill:

“Speaking of Jim Brady, I want to tell all of you here today something that I’m not sure you know. You know that I’m a member of the NRA, and my position on the right to bear arms is well-known. But I want you to know something else, and I’m going to say it in clear, unmistakable language: I support the Brady Bill and I urge the Congress to enact it.
With the right to bear arms comes a great responsibility: to use caution and common sense on handgun purchases. And it’s just plain common sense that there be a waiting period to allow local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on those who wish to buy a handgun.”

While versions of the Brady Bill passed both the House & Senate in 1991, a compromise couldn’t be reached, and it wasn’t until 1993 with the incoming 103rd Congress and Clinton administration that it regained traction.

The version of the bill that ultimately became law was introduced by then-Rep. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who is now serving as the Senate minority leader. It passed Congress with some bipartisan support ― although most Democrats were in favor and most Republicans opposed ― and took effect gradually between 1994 and 1998 (it only applied to handguns until 1998).

What did it do?

The Brady Bill amended the Gun Control Act of 1968 to require background checks on purchases of firearms from federally licensed dealers. Assuming no additional state requirements are in place, that means an FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) check has to be completed and approved before a person can buy a firearm from a dealer. Background checks have to be completed within three days, and if the sale isn’t rejected in that timeframe it can go forward.

The Brady Bill also prohibited individuals from shipping or receiving firearms across state or national borders if they are:

  • Convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year;
  • Convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence;
  • Subject to a restraining order;
  • A fugitive from justice;
  • An unlawful user or addicted to a controlled substance;
  • Adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution;
  • Unauthorized immigrants or are unlawfully in the U.S.;
  • A former U.S. citizen who renounced their citizenship.

It’s important to note that the Brady Bill doesn’t require background checks for all gun sales. For example, gun sales between private individuals represent about one-fifth of all transactions and aren’t covered (although they may be by state or local law).

Neither are purchases by licensed collectors of Curios & Relics, which are firearms that were made at least 50 years ago, are of museum interest, or are “novel, rare, bizarre, or because of their association with some historical figure, period, or event.”

What has its impact been?

The Brady Bill was nearly derailed before it could fully take effect because of a Supreme Court ruling in 1997 stemming from a challenge backed by the NRA.

In Printz v. United States, the Supreme Court found the Brady Bill’s requirement that local law enforcement officers conduct background checks violated the Constitution’s 10th Amendment on federalism grounds. However, the rest of the bill was upheld and state and local law enforcement remained free to conduct background checks if they chose to ― the majority of which did.

According to data from USAFacts, a non-partisan civic data initiative, there were more than 277 million background checks carried out on would-be gun purchasers in the U.S. between 1999 and 2017 (with more 1.3 million denials according to the FBI). Since 2009, background checks have exceeded 14 million each year and averaged 20.3 million per year over the 1999-2017 period, per USAFacts.

In recent years, the Brady Bill and the NICS background check system have undergone further reforms:

  • In 2008, President George W. Bush signed a bipartisan bill to provide grants to states to improve their reporting to the NICS database after an investigation into the Virginia Tech shooting found information that should’ve disqualified the gunman from acquiring a firearm wasn’t relayed to the FBI by the state of Virginia.
  • Before leaving office, President Barack Obama finalized a regulation in December 2016 through the Social Security Administration (SSA) that submitted information about beneficiaries deemed “mental defectives” to the NICS database if they were unable to manage their own affairs. The rule didn’t give beneficiaries the ability to challenge their gun-purchasing rights being taken away, although they could petition to have them restored after the fact.
  • In February 2017, the Obama era “mental defectives” rule was repealed using the Congressional Review Act following votes of 235-180 in the House and 57-43 in the Senate, plus the signature of President Donald Trump.
  • A month later, the House passed a bill that’d prevent the Dept. of Veterans Affairs from stripping gun ownership rights of “mentally defective” veterans without a judge’s approval, though the bill hasn’t been taken up by the Senate

— Eric Revell

(Photo Credit: National Archives / Public Domain)

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