Federal Gun Control: What’s Next After the Brady Act?

By Philip Kim

Over twenty years have passed since President Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (known as the “Brady Act”). With the publicity surrounding recent school shootings and other mass shooters, people are outraged over gun control policy. Within the past year, there have been forty-seven school shootings. Twenty-six of the school shootings resulted in injury or death to innocent victims, whereas the other shootings were either attempted or completed suicides, where no bystanders were injured or killed.

The History of Gun Control

To understand the current-day gun policy, a historical approach must be taken. The Second Amendment, which was ratified in 1791, reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Around that time, there were even laws that required every able-bodied man to possess a firearm and enroll in the militia.

Federal gun control started in the early 1900s, and over the years, there have been numerous additions and amendments. One law, known as the Gun Control Act of 1968, banned mail orders of shotguns and rifles and was spurred by the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy. In 1993, President Clinton signed the Brady Act, which Congress named after President Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady, who was shot and paralyzed in an assassination attempt on President Reagan. The Brady Act increased limitations on gun purchases by requiring: (1) federal background checks; (2) a waiting period before people receive guns they purchased, and (3) limits against specific groups of people (i.e., convicted felons, fugitives, and undocumented immigrants). A year later, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was signed, which included a ten-year ban on the manufacturing of new semi-automatic assault weapons; the ban has since expired and Congress has not extended it.

In the twenty years since enacting the Brady Act, laws have also been passed to loosen gun control regulations. For instance, in 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was passed; this act protects gun manufacturers from civil liability arising from crimes committed with firearms. Also, a 2013 study illustrated that of the 109 state gun laws passed that year, 70 of them acted to loosen gun control restrictions.

Gun control opponents have also had victories at the Supreme Court in some landmark cases. In 2008 the Supreme Court held in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment extends a right to all individuals to keep firearms for lawful purposes such as self-defense in one’s home. Specifically, the ruling stated that a ban on a class of weapons (in this case, handguns) was unconstitutional and that a law requiring that gun owners dissemble their handguns at home or lock their trigger was unconstitutional. Then in 2010, The Supreme Court ruled in McDonald v. City of Chicago that the Second Amendment was incorporated under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and applied to the individual states.

The Current Gun Control Debate

Although, in the wake of recent school shootings and other mass shootings, there has been a lot of discussion of overhauling the gun control legislation, Congress has passed nothing yet at the federal level. Even after the Sandy Hook massacre, the Senate rejected a bill that called for expanded background checks and bans on some military style assault rifles. Senate Democrats were pushing for widespread gun control reform in October.  Their proposal would have included closing background check loopholes, expanding the background check database, and increasing regulations on illegal gun purchases. However, Senate Republicans blocked gun control amendments in December even after the San Bernardino shootings.

Enhancing background checks is a popular proposal; according to a 2013 survey, 89% of Americans and 84% of gun owners support universal background checks. Further, it is likely to have positive results as a Johns Hopkins study demonstrated that when legislatures repealed laws requiring some background check, gun violence murders increased. The proposal would also restrict domestic abusers from buying firearms, which would most likely garner voter approval. Restricting straw purchases of guns would also help in preventing individuals from circumventing the gun control laws. Recent polls contradictorily suggest that a majority of Americans oppose stricter gun control. However, it is not a large majority at 52%. Another 2013 study from the New England Journal of Medicine showed that there was an agreement between different groups of people including gun owners, non-gun owners, and advocates on both sides when it came to issues such as enhancing background checks, increased oversight on firearm distributors, and limiting sales of firearms to people who violated domestic violence restraining orders. Thus, some provisions in the Senate Democrats’ proposal are popular issues supported by a majority of voters.

Recently, President Obama has pressed a regulatory change to address these issues. Crucially, that would include Internet and gun show sellers within the definition of sellers requiring a license under the Gun Control Act as Amended. This move has been controversial and focuses on making existing regulations more enforceable not adding new regulations.

However, lately gun control opponents seem to be winning the debate on gun control policy. An important point to illustrate is that the overall violent crime rate has dropped precipitously since the 1990s. Concealed carry permits have risen while murder rates have dropped 25%. These statistics support gun rights advocates’ argument that armed citizens deter criminals and reduce violence. Thus, right now it seems like a very strict gun control bill would not get the support needed to pass Congress.

Conclusion

It has been ten years since Congress has passed new federal gun control legislation. However, despite the fact that some proposals are universally well-received by a large majority of Americans, given the current stalemate, it is unclear whether Congress will pass new gun control legislation any time in the near future. Perhaps, executive measures taken will help in solving gun crimes while Congress remains paralyzed.