Pro-con Brady Bill: A Deadline on Public Safety

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Domestic abusers, drug addicts, the mentally ill, and some felons will be able to purchase handguns more easily after November 30, 1998, thanks to the gun lobby. Nearly five years ago, the Brady Bill's five-day waiting period and background check for handgun purchasers became law with the support of more than 90 percent of the American public and every major law enforcement group in the country. Unable to block passage of this popular legislation, the gun lobby quietly slipped in a provision that required the law's waiting period to expire in five years and to be replaced with a computerized instant check system. If Congress does not extend the Brady Law's waiting period past this arbitrary expiration date, thousands of people who are prohibited by law from purchasing guns could slip through the cracks and obtain lethal weapons.

Since the law's adoption, background checks have stopped nearly a quarter-million felons, fugitives and other dangerous people from illegally buying guns over-the-counter. Additionally, hundreds of people wanted on outstanding arrest warrants have been apprehended by police thanks to background checks. Gun-related violent crime and interstate gun trafficking have also decreased dramatically since the Brady Law took effect.

The National Instant Check System (NICS), which the U.S. Department of Justice is implementing, relies on computerized federal data to immediately check prospective firearms purchasers for felony convictions and some other barriers to purchase, such as dishonorable discharges from the military and non-U.S. residency. The 23 states that currently fall under the Brady Law will rely solely on this system. Background checks will be conducted instantaneously and most gun sales will be completed in a matter of minutes. While the Justice Department has done a good job of computerizing federal records, NICS does not have access to many of the important records kept at state and local levels, such as domestic violence misdemeanors, court restraining orders, involuntary admissions to mental hospitals, court-ordered drug rehabilitation, and recent arrests.

How important is it to check these records? In 1997 alone, an estimated 7,500 people were denied handguns due to domestic violence misdemeanor convictions or restraining orders, and an estimated 4,100 fugitives from justice were screened out by background checks, according to the Justice Department. In Wichita County, Kansas, a Brady background check prevented a gun sale to a man who was under a restraining order for battering and threatening to kill his ex-wife and children. In Austin, Texas, a man who had threatened his family and co-workers was also denied a handgun. Under the computerized instant check system scheduled for implementation in November, these prohibited purchasers and many others might have passed the background check and been allowed to purchase guns.

The Brady Law's waiting period also serves as a "cooling off period" to prevent crimes of passion and suicides. A study conducted by an organization that I chair, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, found that guns recovered as part of homicide investigations make up a disproportionately large share of those firearms traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms within one week of the date the guns were purchased. This just shows that people who need guns "immediately" usually have a very nasty use for them.

That's why Congress must pass the Brady Waiting Period Extension Act (H.R. 4233/ S. 2324). This legislation mandates a minimum three-day and maximum five-day waiting period for firearm purchases. While law enforcement supports the legislation; the gun lobby is attempting to block it.

The Brady Law has played a pivotal role in turning the tide on gun crime and violent crime. Allowing the waiting period to expire will only reverse that progress.