Where Would the Gun Debate Be Today Without James Brady?

Passed after an attempt on President Reagan’s life, the Brady Bill sought to limit criminals’ access to guns. Why, then, does it remain divisive today?

National Geographic Channel's world premiere television movie event "Killing Reagan" airs Sunday, October 16 at 8/7c.

Nearly ten years after an attempt was made on his life, former president Ronald Reagan spoke at George Washington University. “With the right to bear arms comes a great responsibility to use caution and common sense on handgun purchases,” he said. "And it's just plain common sense that there be a waiting period to allow local law-enforcement officials to conduct background checks on those who wish to purchase handguns."

What he described as “common sense” was, at the time, not yet a part of the law. Reagan, among others, was speaking out in support of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. Named for Jim Brady, Reagan’s Press Secretary who was also shot during the assassination attempt, the so-called “Brady Bill” sought to impose a mandatory five-day waiting period and background checks on anyone who wanted to buy a firearm. Brady survived his wounds, though he required the full-time use of a wheelchair, and spent the rest of his life advocating for gun control.

Still, it would be another two and a half years before a version of the Brady Bill would be signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton, and it would be seven years before the FBI launched the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The NICS, as mandated by the Brady Bill, checks to see if a purchaser has a criminal record or “isn’t otherwise ineligible to make a purchase,” according to the NICS website. Since launching in 1998, the NICS site says that it’s conducted 230 million background checks to date. In the meantime, the gun control debate has continued to be a hot-button issue within our political landscape.

Gun control lives at the intersection of culture and politics, sparking fierce debate about almost every aspect of American life. Add to that the fact that guns play an important part in American history, and it’s no wonder that the conversation is often controversial, with arguments often running the gamut from mental health to the right to self-defense.

For something so hotly debated, though, it seems that the lines in the sand aren’t so clearly drawn. Take the question of whether or not background checks should be implemented at gun shows or other vendors such as online retailers: according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 79 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of Democrats were in favor of such background checks, a strong bipartisan show of support.

So why, then, did a piece of gun-control legislation that proposed just such changes fail to pass into law not once but twice? The Manchin-Toomey gun-control proposal would have expanded background checks and, to sweeten the deal, it was a bipartisan effort by Senators Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican.

One of the sticking points against the bill and any similar legislation stems from conservative distrust in potentially broadening the reach of the government by empowering further restrictions on gun ownership. In the case of Manchin-Toomey, the tricky issue of government record-keeping led to fears that people could be barred from purchasing firearms even if they should be eligible. This is particularly in light of cases where people have been mistakenly added to terrorist watch lists. A similar wariness toward the federal government arose for the original Brady Bill, when people voiced concerns that it gave the federal government too much power over what some believed should be within the jurisdiction of individual states.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a Republican, summed up the skepticism about the Manchin-Toomey proposal, saying: “[To support the legislation,] you would have to believe that the federal government is always right and is all-knowing and can deprive you of valuable constitutional rights without giving notice and an opportunity to be heard in front of an impartial tribunal.”

Proponents of more gun-control legislation are also concerned about such deadly errors. The difference is that these supporters are more likely to want to operate within the framework of the Brady Bill and build upon its foundations, closing loopholes and increasing regulation. For instance, current Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton supports the Brady bill but believes it crucial to address oversights by the NICS, such as the one that enabled Dylann Roof to buy a gun and murder 9 people at a Charleston, S.C., church.

“…I would hope that [others] would join the Democrats who are trying to close the Charleston loophole,” said Clinton during the Democratic primary debate in December 2015. “We need to move on this consensus that exists in the country. It's no longer enough just to say the vast majority of Americans want common sense gun safety measures, including gun owners.”

The problem is that no one can agree on what “common sense” means. To some, it means tighter restrictions on gun sales, to others it means more support for open carry and the elimination of “gun-free zones,” arguing that law-abiding citizens need to defend themselves.

“My skepticism about gun laws is criminals don’t follow the law,” said Sen. Marco Rubio. “They don’t care what the law is, you can pass any law you want and criminals won’t follow it.”

The many arguments in the gun control debate sometimes contradict each other but still other times they overlap. In June 2016, the worst mass shooting in American history occurred in Orlando. In August 2016, Chicago recorded the most homicides in a month since October 1997. No matter the differing opinions, everyone agrees that something needs to change and fast.

"The fact is it's not divisive,” said Dan Gross in the AP series Divided America. Gross is the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “The things that we're advocating in the American public, when you're talking about keeping guns out of dangerous hands, we all agree.” What remains to be seen, even so many years after Brady’s shooting and the passing of the Brady Bill, is whether we can agree on just how to do so.

National Geographic Channel's world premiere television movie event "Killing Reagan" airs Sunday, October 16 at 8/7c.