A Happy Anniversary: The Brady Law Turns 14

The Brady Law went into effect 14 years ago today, February 28, 1994.

On anniversaries like this, it is important to remember what the Brady Law has accomplished, how effective the law has been at helping reduce gun crime, and how bitterly the NRA fought to kill it - including their effort to have the Brady Law struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since 1994, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (the "Brady Law") has stopped an estimated 1.4 million criminals and other "prohibited purchasers" from buying guns from Federally licensed gun dealers. As the Bureau of Justice Statistics has shown, the rate of gun crime in America then plummeted for years. "After peaking in 1993," the BJS reports, "the number of gun crimes reported to police declined and then stabilized at levels last seen in 1988." Furthermore, according to the BJS, "nonfatal firearm-related crime has plummeted since 1993, before increasing in 2005."

Before the Brady Law was enacted, most states didn't require background checks of gun purchasers at all. While the Gun Control Act of 1968 made it illegal for felons, fugitives, the dangerously mentally ill and other "prohibited purchasers" to buy firearms, there was no national mechanism to help enforce this rule.

This meant that until February 28, 1994, gun dealers and gun buyers worked on the "honor" system. As long as gun buyers promised they weren't dangerous on a Federal form, prohibited purchasers could get away with buying, and gun dealers could get away with selling, as many guns as they wanted. And if their guns were later used in crime, a gun dealer could always say, "The buyer lied to me. How could I know?" Before 1994, criminal gun buyers and dealers could ignore the Gun Control Act with impunity.

After 1994, however, we entered the era of "Trust, but verify."

President Ronald Reagan often used that phrase in the context of international arms control in dealing with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and others.

When it comes to "domestic arms control," the Brady Law does the same thing. It recognizes that most gun buyers and gun dealers are honest, but it works to filter out those purchasers who are dishonest - about 1.4 million people so far - by checking to make sure.

It only makes sense that President Reagan would come out in favor of passing the Brady Bill. In an eloquent Op-Ed in the New York Times on March 29, 1991, one day before the 10th anniversary of the assassination attempt on his life and that of his Press Secretary, James S. Brady, President Reagan described his own incredible ordeal of surviving the shooting, and then went on to talk about Jim:

"I was lucky. The bullet that hit me bounced off a rib and lodged in my lung, an inch from my heart. It was a very close call. Twice they could not find my pulse. But the bullet's missing my heart, the skill of the doctors and nurses at George Washington University Hospital and the steadfast support of my wife, Nancy, saved my life.

"Jim Brady, my press secretary, who was standing next to me, wasn't as lucky. A bullet entered the left side of his forehead, near his eye, and passed through the right side of his brain before it exited. The skills of the George Washington University medical team, plus his amazing determination and the grit and spirit of his wife, Sarah, pulled Jim through. His recovery has been remarkable, but he still lives with physical pain every day and must spend much of his time in a wheelchair.

"Thomas Delahanty, a Washington police officer, took a bullet in his neck. It ricocheted off his spinal cord. Nerve damage to his left arm forced his retirement in November 1981.

"Tim McCarthy, a Secret Service agent, was shot in the chest and suffered a lacerated liver. He recovered and returned to duty."

Then, President Reagan made his position crystal clear:

"Still, four lives were changed forever, and all by a Saturday-night special -- a cheaply made .22 caliber pistol -- purchased in a Dallas pawnshop by a young man with a history of mental disturbance.

"This nightmare might never have happened if legislation that is before Congress now -- the Brady bill -- had been law back in 1981."

Those moving thoughts are worth remembering still.

A gaping loophole in the Brady Law remains, however, and Congress needs to take action immediately to help close it. Currently, only Federally licensed gun dealers are required to run Brady background checks on gun purchasers. That means there are millions of gun sales by unlicensed sellers not subject to Brady checks at all. In fact, one study done for the National Institute of Justice reports that about 40% of all firearms sold in America are sold by unlicensed sellers with no Brady background check required. A significant proportion of these unlicensed sales occur at gun shows, allowing criminals and other prohibited purchasers to arm themselves with no questions asked.

That's wrong, and Congress needs to do something about it. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (NJ) and Sen. Jack Reed (RI) recently introduced a bill to close the gun show loophole and require checks on all gun purchases at gun shows. I urge the Congress to pass this bill as soon as possible.

Make no mistake, it's been a long and difficult fight, but America is turning the corner on the gun issue. The country should not let the gun lobby stand in the way of public safety.

Common-sense gun control like the Brady Law saves lives, and the American people know it.

(Note to readers: This entry, along with past entries, has been co-posted on bradycampaign.org/blog and the Huffington Post.)