U.S. Gun Control Legislation Takes Effect

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act established a mandatory five-day waiting period and background check before a handgun can be purchased in the United States.

Summary of Event

On November 30, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act into law—the first significant federal gun control legislation passed in the United States since 1968. Its passage came after a six-year campaign by James S. Brady, Sarah Brady, and Handgun Control, Inc., Handgun Control, Inc. which was fiercely opposed by the National Rifle Association National Rifle Association (NRA). Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993)
Gun control legislation, U.S.
[kw]U.S. Gun Control Legislation Takes Effect (Mar. 1, 1994)
[kw]Gun Control Legislation Takes Effect, U.S. (Mar. 1, 1994)
[kw]Legislation Takes Effect, U.S. Gun Control (Mar. 1, 1994)
Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993)
Gun control legislation, U.S.
[g]North America;Mar. 1, 1994: U.S. Gun Control Legislation Takes Effect[08830]
[g]United States;Mar. 1, 1994: U.S. Gun Control Legislation Takes Effect[08830]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 1, 1994: U.S. Gun Control Legislation Takes Effect[08830]
[c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 1, 1994: U.S. Gun Control Legislation Takes Effect[08830]
Brady, James S.
Brady, Sarah
Clinton, Bill
[p]Clinton, Bill;Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act
Dole, Bob
Feighan, Edward
Metzenbaum, Howard
Mitchell, George
Reagan, Ronald
[p]Reagan, Ronald;assassination attempt
Schumer, Charles

James Brady had been active in Republican Party politics from the early 1960’s. He had held posts in the administrations of presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. In 1980, he joined Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign as director of public affairs. When Reagan became president in January, 1981, Brady was named White House press secretary. On March 30, 1981, a mentally disturbed young man shot at President Reagan and his entourage as they left a Washington, D.C., hotel at which the president had delivered a speech. Reagan was seriously wounded, as were a Washington police officer and a secret service agent. Brady was the most seriously injured, with a gunshot wound to the head. For several days, Brady was near death. His recovery was long and painful. He was not allowed to go home for eight months and did not return to work for almost two years. Even then, he continued to suffer paralysis of the left side, problems with speech, and memory difficulties.

Sarah Kemp was a Republican Party activist when she met James Brady in 1970. They were married in 1973. At the time Brady was shot, they had a two-year-old son, Scott. Sarah Brady helped her husband in his long recovery. In 1984, when Scott was five years of age, Sarah found him playing with a friend’s loaded pistol. This event, along with her husband’s experience, convinced her to become active in the gun control movement. She called Handgun Control, Inc., the most influential gun control advocacy group then operating in the United States, and offered her help. From that point on, Sarah Brady became a tireless advocate for stricter gun control laws.

Nearly five years after signing the Brady gun control law, President Bill Clinton meets with James Brady to call on Congress to extend the law.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

A proposed federal gun control law, called the Brady bill because of the activism of Jim and Sarah Brady, was first introduced in Congress by Democratic representative Edward Feighan of Ohio, on February 4, 1987. The main provision of the bill was a seven-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns. Polls at the time showed that the American public favored such a measure, but the bill was strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association. The position of the NRA was that any new gun control legislation violated the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

The Second Amendment Second Amendment (U.S. Constitution) is part of the Bill of Rights, which was ratified in 1791. The amendment says simply, “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.” Legal interpretations of the amendment have usually concluded that some restrictions on firearms are constitutional. During the 1930’s, violence perpetrated by organized crime led to the passage of the first federal gun control laws. These laws banned private ownership of submachine guns and banned the sale of firearms to known criminals. In 1939, in Miller v. United States, Miller v. United States (1939) the Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;gun ownership found that these restrictions were constitutional, as such weapons had no relationship to the formation of a well-regulated militia. The next significant piece of federal gun control legislation was passed in 1968, in response to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. This law prohibited interstate sales of firearms and required gun dealers to keep records of sales.

The NRA worked throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s to repeal some provisions of the 1968 Gun Control Act. Gun Control Act (1968) They had some success in 1986, when Congress voted to repeal the ban on interstate sales of rifles and shotguns. In 1987, the NRA mounted an intense lobbying campaign to defeat the Brady bill and spent approximately two million dollars in the effort. The Brady bill was to be voted on in the House of Representatives in September of 1988. The Bradys and Handgun Control, Inc., lobbied hard for it, and on September 7, a group of 120 uniformed police officers marched on the Capitol in support of the law’s passage. The bill was defeated, however, by a vote of 228 to 182.

The Brady bill was reintroduced in Congress in 1990, but it was never brought to a vote at that time because of opposition from powerful members of Congress, including House Speaker Thomas Foley Foley, Thomas (a Democrat from Washington State). The bill was introduced again in 1991. On May 8, 1991, the House of Representatives passed a bill requiring a seven-day waiting period for gun purchases. The Senate version, passed on June 28, called for a five-day waiting period. The compromise bill, incorporating the Senate requirements, was passed by the House on November 27, but Republican senators launched a filibuster against it and it never came to a vote in the Senate. In 1992, supporters of the Brady bill once again tried to bring it up for a vote in the Senate but were unable to get enough votes to end the filibuster.

By 1993, public support for gun control legislation had increased dramatically. A poll conducted in March of that year showed that 70 percent of all Americans and 57 percent of gun owners felt that there should be more restrictions on the sale of firearms. Passage of the Brady bill was favored by 88 percent of people in the United States. The bill was introduced in the House by Democrat Charles Schumer of New York on February 22, 1993, and in the Senate by Ohio Democrat Howard Metzenbaum on February 24. Both the NRA and Handgun Control, Inc., kept up their intensive lobbying efforts.

On November 10, 1993, the House passed the bill by a vote of 238 to 182. Ten days later, the Senate passed its bill by a vote of 63 to 36. There were significant differences in the bills passed by the two houses of Congress, and a conference committee negotiated for two days before presenting a conference report to both houses. On November 22, the House of Representatives passed the compromise bill by a vote of 238 to 187. In the Senate, Minority Leader Bob Dole (a Republican from Kansas) threatened to block passage of the bill with a filibuster. Dole negotiated with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine and finally agreed not to block passage of the bill if the Senate would consider modifications to it early in the new year. The Senate passed the bill by voice vote on November 24. Jim Brady called it a “Thanksgiving present for the American people.” The law went into effect on March 1, 1994.


Assessments of the effectiveness of the Brady bill after its first year of enforcement were mixed. The NRA and other groups opposed to any form of gun control asserted that the law was not only a clear violation of the Second Amendment but also ineffective, because it did not keep criminals from buying guns illegally. They pointed to the fact that the Department of Justice prosecuted only four cases under the Brady bill in the law’s first year. They also pointed out several loopholes that allowed limitations on law-enforcement record keeping and exempted pawnshops from some of the rules. Several judges found some provisions of the law unconstitutional, although it remained in effect pending appeal.

The Bradys and other supporters of the bill maintained that it was a success. They pointed to government figures showing that seventy thousand convicted felons were prevented from buying guns under the law in its first year. They admitted that the bill was weak, but they argued that it was an important first step in stopping handgun violence. Jim Brady called his namesake bill “the end of unchecked madness and the commencement of a heartfelt crusade for a safer and saner country.” Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993)
Gun control legislation, U.S.

Further Reading

  • Cornell, Saul. A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. A constitutional historian presents a historical examination of the gun control issue. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Cozic, Charles P., ed. Gun Control. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 1992. Collection encompasses contributions by authors with varying viewpoints on the issue, including Sarah Brady and representatives of the NRA.
  • Davidson, Osha Gray. Under Fire: The NRA and the Battle for Gun Control. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998. Attempts to provide a balanced view of the history of the NRA and its confrontations with gun control advocates in the 1990’s.
  • Jacobs, James B. Can Gun Control Work? New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Examines the practical question of whether gun control can ever actually be an effective policy in the United States. Devotes significant attention to the Brady bill.
  • LaPierre, Wayne. Guns, Crime, and Freedom. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1994. A lobbyist for the NRA presents arguments against gun control. Includes extensive bibliography.
  • Siegel, Mark A., et al. Gun Control: Restricting Rights or Protecting People? Wylie, Tex.: Information Plus, 1995. Study guide on the issues provides many tables and charts to help readers interpret the available information on gun control.

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