A Boost For Brady

With the NRA weakened and crime on the rise, new support for gun control

The grin, the jokes, the hint of huskiness in the voice: it was vintage Ronald Reagan, back in Washington again. Chipper and gracious on a sentimental journey to George Washington University, Reagan was in town to honor the staff at GW's University Hospital for saving his life after the assassination attempt by John W. Hinckley Jr. in 1981. He also had a surprise for his old friends in the National Rifle Association. "You do know that I'm a member of the NRA, and my position on the right to bear arms is well known," Reagan said. "But I want you to know something else, and I am going to say it in clear, unmistakable language: I support the Brady bill, and I urge the Congress to enact it without further delay."

The Brady bill--named after former White House press secretary James Brady, who was wounded and permanently disabled in the Hinckley shooting--is now the Holy Grail for those who seek to reduce gun violence in the United States(box). The bill, which calls for a mandatory seven-day waiting period of handgun purchases, is a genuinely modest proposal. But it is the first attempt by the federal government to restrict handgun sales since the 1960s, and its symbolic importance--as a defeat for the NRA and as a possible precursor to further gun-control legislation--is very real. The public, frightened by the rise in violent crime, overwhelmingly supports the basic idea of the Brady bill, and gun-control advocates think the measure, which was handily defeated in 1988, may finally squeak through Congress this year. But a showdown vote in the House, scheduled for early May, is expected to be close, and Reagan's endorsement may provide a crucial bit of political cover for House members who fear retaliation by the NRA.

Weakened by internal controversy and slowly losing membership, the NRA may no longer be the undisputed champion of single-issue politics. But it is still a formidable lobbying group, and it is capable of exerting intense pressure on Congress and the Bush administration. Like Reagan, George Bush is a lifetime NRA member who is on record as opposing stricter gun control: few gun-control advocates think the president will follow Reagan's lead by reversing himself on the Brady bill. Their real hope is that Bush will be content with a show of public opposition, then allow the bill to become law without his signature. Last week the administration seemed to be signaling a political trade-off as well. If congressional Democrats drop their objections to the president's 1991 crime package, Attorney General Richard Thornburg hinted, the administration might soften its opposition to the Brady bill. The NRA, meanwhile, is pushing an alternative measure that seems designed to dilute support for the Brady bill. The NRA's proposal would establish a federal hot line to provide "instant" background checks on handgun buyers without the waiting period.

Background checks are the core issue in the gun-control debate. Virtually no knowledgeable expert believes that handguns can be eliminated from American society. According to Handgun Control, Inc., there are now 60 million to 70 million pistols and revolvers in private hands nationwide; that statistic is usually interpreted to mean that about one American household in four already has some kind of handgun. The vast majority of the nation's handgun owners are, as the NRA insists, law-abiding and responsible people, and they are presumably determined to keep their weapons--for sports like target shooting, or for personal protection. So the real issue is not, as some zealots would have it, whether there will be a nationwide drive to confiscate all guns. It is whether Congress will take the necessary steps to prevent criminals and mentally unbalanced persons from acquiring handguns on the wide-open U.S. small-arms market.

The Brady bill would permit, but not require, state and local authorities to conduct background checks on would-be handgun buyers. Jim Brady's wife, Sarah, who is the chairperson of Handgun Control, Inc., concedes that the bill is only a "stopgap" for what many in Congress believe to be the real goal: a comprehensive national list of convicted felons and mental patients to allow the screening of prospective gun buyers. No such list now exists, and the U.S. Justice Department, which supports the NRA's "instant check" bill, estimates that it would take several years and upwards of $100 million to create one. The very idea of such a list is, of course, anathema to libertarians, and it is likely to be an administrative mess as well. "To get 17,000 [local] police departments to contribute to a national system like this in a timely fashion would be a nightmare," says criminologist Jim Fyfe of American University.

But even a national list of convicted felons and mental patients may not do the job. That is because many of the guns now used in violent crime are purchased by middlemen with clean records, then resold to criminals. According to a much-cited study by Tulane University sociologist James Wright, only 17 percent of a sample of convicted felons actually purchased their handguns from licensed gun dealers, which means the vast majority, 83 percent, bought weapons on the black market. Given the crazy-quilt discrepancies among state and local gun laws, police and other law-enforcement officials agree that interstate gun trafficking is a large and growing problem. The gun lobby, meanwhile, has effectively blocked the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms from cracking down on gun smuggling. The 1968 Gun Control Act requires dealers to keep records on handgun purchasers--but under a federal budget amendment backed by the NRA, the BATF is legally prohibited from collecting all such records for any form of centralized federal database.

Gun-control advocates like Rep. Charles Schumer of New York, chairman of the House subcommittee on crime and criminal justice, argue that the Brady bill will help reduce the number of handguns used in violent crime. Even if it is true that only 17 percent of the guns used by criminals were purchased from licensed dealers, Schumer says, a 17 percent reduction in the murder rate would be "great progress in the war on crime." But Schumer's claim is too simplistic, and neither the Brady bill nor the NRA's "instant check" substitute will do anything much to control the burgeoning growth of black-market gun sales.

There is only one way to do that--by creating a comprehensive national registry of all handgun purchasers, and by allowing police and federal agents to trace and prosecute suspected gun traffickers. Master lists of criminals and mental patients will not work, and a national roundup of privately owned handguns is both unnecessary and politically impossible. Sooner or later, the war on the streets of America's cities may force effective regulation of handgun ownership at the federal level. But whether or not the Brady bill passes, that goal is not likely to be achieved this year.

During the years 1979-1987, handguns were involved in an average of 9,200 murders, 12,100 rapes, 210,000 robberies and 407,600 assaults each year.

On an average day, 10 children, 18 and under, are killed with handguns.

In 1988, 62 of the 78 law-enforcement officers slain in the line of duty were killed with handguns.

An estimated 200 million firearms are in the possession of private citizens in the United States; 60 million to 70 million of these weapons are handguns.