This week (Nov. 30) in 1993, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Handgun Violence Prevention Act, better known as the Brady Bill because its chief proponent was James Brady, the former press secretary to Ronald Reagan who had been shot and seriously wounded by James Hinckley during Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate President Reagan in 1981. Hinckley, despite both an arrest record and a history of mental illness, had easily purchased the gun he used to shoot Reagan, falsely filling out the purchase application forms.
Thus did Brady, who remains partially paralyzed, and his wife Sarah campaign for a law that would require background checks for everyone purchasing a firearm. The resulting Brady Bill required a waiting period of five days while the purchaser’s past was reviewed to determine whether, among other things, he or she had a criminal record or was under indictment for a crime, had spent time in a mental institution, was guilty of domestic violence or was a fugitive from justice. If so, the purchase was denied.
The National Rifle Association subsequently filed lawsuits charging that the Brady Bill was unconstitutional because its provision compelling state and local law enforcement officials to spend valuable time and resources performing such background checks violated the 10th Amendment. The 10th Amendment says that any powers not specifically given to the federal government by the Constitution, or denied to the people and the states by that same Constitution, are powers belonging to the people and the states. As the NRA saw it, the Constitution includes no federal power to compel state and local officials to perform background checks on gun purchases.
In 1997 the Supreme Court actually agreed with the NRA, but noted that while state and local law enforcement could not be compelled to do background checks, they were free to abide by the Brady Bill if they chose to, which most did. Subsequently, the issue became moot when, in 1998, a federally managed computerized background check system with no waiting period was created. Called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), it is still in use today. In fact, in 2009 the NICS completed its 100 millionth background check, and since the Brady Bill’s passage approximately 2 million attempted firearms purchases, approximately half by convicted felons, have been denied.
Granted, the Second Amendment, which protects the right of every American to own a gun, is the law of the land and gun ownership is—as the Founders intended—sacrosanct in this country. But as with all fundamental rights, there are “reasonable restrictions.” Our First Amendment protection of free speech notwithstanding, people can’t falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Likewise, criminals can’t—and shouldn’t—legally own guns.