What more is there to say about guns and violence and mass killings in our country?
President Obama used his weekly radio address, the morning after a gunman massacred 20 children at an elementary school in Connecticut, to offer solace and prayers. The president called on Americans to come together “to take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this. Regardless of the politics.” But what does that mean?
Respectfully, calling for “meaningful action” is not enough. We need immediate action. We need leadership from our President and Capitol Hill, leadership that has been lacking since 1994 when the last real gun control legislation was passed in Congress.
There. I said it. Gun Control.
I understand the politics of the debate. I was on the South Lawn in September 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban as part of a larger Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. It outlawed nineteen models of firearms defined as “assault weapons,” as well as large-capacity ammunition feeding devices. We had the support of law enforcement and crime victims, but the gun lobby opposed it and a sunset provision was required to secure its passage. In 2004, there was little enthusiasm for its renewal, so it expired.
I understand the constitutional principals at stake. The Second Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights. But in 2008 and 2010, after decades of debate about the meaning of the Second Amendment in the modern context, the Supreme Court issued two landmark decisions concerning the right to bear arms. The justices ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm, and to use that firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. The Court also ruled that the Second Amendment limits state and local governments to the same extent that it limits the federal government.
But I also understand that lives are at stake:
Thirteen lives lost in Columbine in 1999; thirty-two lives lost at Virginia Tech in 2007; thirteen lives lost at Fort Hood in 2009; six dead in the Arizona shooting that almost took the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (there we lost a federal Judge John Roll, and nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green); twelve shot dead in a dark movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, just this summer.
And now this.
Most Americans would be surprised to learn that, even with federal laws dating back to 1934, the federal government, in effect regulates very little.
The best of those regulations is arguably the Brady Law (also known as the Brady Bill, or just plain Brady). The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act purports to keep guns out of the hands of people like Adam Lanza, the shooter last week in Connecticut by requiring background checks be conducted on an individual before purchase from a federally licensed dealer, manufacturer or importer.
After John Hinckley’s assassination attempt on Republican President Ronald Reagan in March 1981, when I was still in high school, authorities discovered that Hinckley had purchased the revolver by providing a fake address and identification. Sarah Brady — wife of Jim Brady, the Reagan press secretary who was paralyzed after being shot in the head — began a campaign to require a simple background check on anyone purchasing a gun. You would think she would have found wide bipartisan support. But instead, the road to passage of the Brady Bill was long and winding and hard fought. I know because I was there when Brady was finally signed into law, in 1993, over a decade later.
Representative Edward Feighan and Senator Howard Metzenbaum, introduced the Brady Bill, for the first time, in the 100th Congress on February 4, 1987. That version of the bill failed.
While Brady was first introduced, when I was in I law school, it would take another seven years before the endlessly reworked legislation finally became law. That’s because the National Rifle Association (NRA) fought the bill for years, with an intense, well-funded lobbying campaign. By the time President Clinton was elected, I was a working adult, serving in the White House on crime policy. Among other things I worked on Brady and I believe, based on what I observed, the effect of the Clinton-Gore election on its ultimate passage was significant.
By the time the 103rd Congress convened, in 1993, a record number of sponsors reintroduced the Brady Bill. Senator Metzenbaum once again introduced the Bill in the Senate; the House sponsor this time around was Congressman Charles Schumer.
Significantly, one week earlier in his State of the Union, President Clinton had declared — to rousing applause — “If you’ll pass the Brady Bill, I’ll sure sign it.” With that short sentence in his address to Congress and the nation, President Clinton altered prospects for passage of the gun control proposal. For the first time, a sitting President had stated that he was willing to sign Brady.
I had only been in Washington three months when my principal, Al Gore assigned me to the Brady working group. That October, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice met to consider Congressman Schumer’s proposed bill. It was my first lesson in how Washington really works – through constant compromise.
The Subcommittee favorably reported the Bill out of committee, but only after it adopted an amendment to clarify that the instant check system would be based on the Interstate Identification Index (unless the Attorney General could find another system that was preferable). Everyone seemed happy that result and I remember thinking that I should I be too. But instead, I had the feeling we were on our way down an amendment rabbit hole.
In November, the full Judiciary Committee passed the Bill, but in the process, also adopted an amendment — this one permitting anyone who had been denied the opportunity to purchase a firearm because of an error in criminal history records to sue for a correction. After that amendment was adopted, the Committee favorably reported out the Bill.
Later that month, the full House debated and voted on Brady. It should have been an exciting time. But instead we got bogged down in a debate about whether the waiting period should sunset in five years — whether or not the instant check system was operational. Needless to say, that amendment was adopted, and the Brady Bill, as amended, passed the House, 238 to 189.
After intense negotiations, the Senate agreed to vote on the compromise Brady Bill on November 19, 1993. We were getting very close to the Thanksgiving Holiday and tensions were rising. The compromise Bill included language similar to the two amendments in the House bill: preemption of all state and local waiting periods and licensing laws; and sunset of the waiting period in five years — whether or not the national instant check system was operational.
The agreement allowed two separate votes to delete the sunset and preemption provisions from the Bill. The amendment to delete the sunset language was offered by Senator Howard Metzenbaum, and it failed. The amendment to delete the preemption language was sponsored by Senator George Mitchell, and it passed. Later that same day, two attempts to obtain cloture later both failed.
By now my head was reeling. My job was to report back to Vice President Gore’s briefing staff the events of each day, so they could update him nightly. I also sat in on the Domestic Policy Council working group meetings related to Brady. All this, in addition to absorbing the machinations on Capitol Hill. I was a lawyer, thank goodness. But my years of law school had hardly prepared me for this trial by fire.
After another day of negotiations between Majority Leader George Mitchell and Minority Leader Robert Dole, the Senate finally voted on the amended Brady Bill, and on November 20, 1993, the Brady Bill passed the Senate by a vote of 63 to 36.
The House-Senate Conference Committee agreed on final language on Monday, November 22, 1993. The House Rules Committee scheduled a final vote on the Conference Report for later that day. That evening, the House passed the Brady Bill Conference Report (238 to 188).
But it wasn’t over. The Senate still needed to confirm the Conference Report; even this ministerial act was delayed in a final, desperate effort on the part of NRA to defeat Brady.
Senator Dole refused to allow the Senate to act on the Conference Report. Once again, the gun control opposition mounted a filibuster that stymied the Senate. Thanksgiving was approaching, and, as was tradition, the Senate was going to adjourn the week prior to Thanksgiving until after the first of the New Year. Brady opponents saw their opportunity to delay final consideration of the legislation in the hopes that, during the month-long break, pressure to pass the Bill would pass.
Exhausted and over-caffeinated, I dragged myself back at the White House. There, the energy was high. The folks in the West Wing were confident we had secured a sufficient number of votes to pass the Bill. They would press forward. With Senator Dole blocking consideration of the Bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitchell announced that the Senate would reconvene after the Thanksgiving weekend, and continue its consideration of the Brady Bill.
Two days of intense negotiations followed, under extreme pressure. The notion that the entire Senate would have to return to Washington after Thanksgiving and stay until Brady was resolved was not appealing to anyone on the Hill. More significantly, there was a mounting anger from Americans across the country. Supporters of the legislation could not believe that, despite the passage of the Bill and the compromises reached, Senator Dole would continue to delay final passage. Finally, the pressure proved to too great, and Senator Dole caved.
Finally, on November 24, 1993, the Senate voted on the Conference Report and passed the Brady Bill.
In the end, timing played a big part. The Brady Bill technically passed during Thanksgiving break, with a mere three Senators were present to vote on it. All three supported the bill, prompting Vice President Al Gore, then-presiding over the Senate, to declare the Bill’s “unanimous” passage.
It was a very emotional ceremony in the East Room of the White House on November 30, 1993, during which President Clinton signed the Brady Bill into law. The law took effect on February 28, 1994.
With Brady, the United States established an affirmative gun control measure for the first time in three decades. Through this legislation, the United States had clearly crossed a threshold.
The Law is intended to detect any potential red flags in an individual’s criminal and mental health history. However, Brady does not affect forty percent of arms sales, because they take place between private individuals, including through websites, or at gun shows. The federal government does not regulate those kinds of sales. Brady only covers federally licensed dealers, manufacturers or importers, with a few exceptions. In Lanza’s case, it has been reported that he had four guns, which were legally owned by his mother.
Clearly, we need more. We need to return to restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines. We need stricter bans on gun buyers with a history of mental illness. We need an assault weapons ban — with no time limit. We need to use this tragedy to fuel a new effort, a new initiative to control firearms and keep them out of the hands of killers.
The time to act is not tomorrow. Today is already too late. There will be another mass shooting, even before we can get the legislation in place to stop it. This week, after the President attended visited Newton, and looked into the eyes of the grieving families, has tasked Vice President Joe Biden to tackle gun violence in the wake of the shootings. Biden will spearhead a panel to formulate gun policies. Let’s hope he can find the political will to save lives — now.
Jami Floyd is a lawyer, an award-winning journalist and a nationally renowned news anchor.