20 Years After Brady Bill Enacted, Conservative Media Still Attacking Gun Background Checks

While requiring background checks on gun sales is overwhelmingly popular with the general public, members of conservative media have used false statements and paranoid rhetoric to fight legislation to require checks for more than 20 years.

A Look Back At The Brady Bill

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the enactment of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, commonly known as the Brady Bill or Brady Act. Signed by President Clinton in 1993 after a multi-year legislative effort, the law requires licensed firearms dealers to perform background checks on customers to prevent felons and other dangerous people from acquiring firearms. While a legal challenge invalidated a waiting period requirement in the Brady Bill created so local law enforcement could process background checks, in 1998 the FBI-administered National Instant Criminal Background Check System was launched, allowing gun dealers to perform often instantaneous background checks on customers. Since then, the law has stopped more than 2 million gun sales to prohibited individuals.

The law derives its name from President Ronald Reagan's press secretary Jim Brady, who was shot and seriously injured during an assassination attempt on Reagan on March 30, 1981, at the Washington Hilton. Reagan was shot in the chest and arm and underwent lifesaving emergency surgery. In a 1991 letter published in The New York Times, Reagan ruminated on the anniversary of the 1981 shooting, writing, “This nightmare might never have happened if legislation that is before Congress now -- the Brady bill -- had been law back in 1981.” Jim and his wife Sarah Brady continue to advocate for gun violence prevention polices through their close work with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Conservative Media Fought Brady Bill With Fact-Free Claims

A review of The Washington Times opinion pages from the debates over versions of the Brady Bill in the 1990s shows that conservatives have long been willing to engage in baseless attacks on background checks for gun sales.

In a March 8, 1994, op-ed for The Washington Times, columnist Sam Francis promoted claims the Brady Bill was the first step in a three-part gun registration and confiscation scheme:

[American Hunter Magazine's] Dr. [David] Caplan wrote his article well before the Brady bill even passed Congress, but the model, or “plan” as he calls it, for the eventual confiscation of guns was clear to him even then. “The plan,” he wrote, “is now obvious to all who would see: First Step, enact a nationwide firearms waiting period law. Second Step, when the waiting period doesn't reduce crime, and it won't, then enact a nationwide registration law; Final Step, confiscate all these registered firearms.”

Step One, in the form of the Brady law, has already been taken, and no sooner was it enacted than the whine went up that it just didn't go far enough. Mr. Schumer's new bill is pretty close to the nationwide gun registration law that constitutes Step Two in the plan, since the license it requires gun owners to obtain would provide a public record to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and similar agencies of who has guns, what kind and how many.

An April 2, 1991, Times op-ed by Paul Craig Roberts included dire predictions about the Brady Bill that did not come true including his claim that “supporters of the Brady bill openly admit their real goal is to take guns away from everyone and that the Brady bill is the camel's nose under the tent.” Roberts also incorrectly predicted the Brady Bill would increase crime and that criminals would not be stopped from acquiring guns by the legislation. In fact, crime has gone down since the early 1990s and over 2 million prohibited purchases have been stopped by the Brady Bill.

The Times editorial board commented on the Brady Bill in an April 10, 1991, column -- titled “Gun down the Brady bill” -- writing, “The truth is that the Brady bill will do nothing to stop handgun crime and much to aggravate, inconvenience and trample the rights of law-abiding Americans.” The column also suggested "[s]ome analysts say the bill is a sneaky little effort to get complete control of handguns" and made the laughable -- and obviously incorrect -- legal argument that the Brady Bill “stands in utter contempt of the Second Amendment, which doesn't prohibit states from passing gun-control laws but does forbid the federal government from doing so.”

If the Brady Bill was truly going to create a national gun registry, surely some evidence of it would have emerged in the intervening twenty years to corroborate conservative media's claims. Instead a national gun registry remains illegal under federal law and proposals to expand background checks to commercial sales specifically prohibit the creation of the registry. Even so, the gun lobby and its media allies continue to trot out the tired canard of gun registration and confiscation to oppose any and all regulation of firearms, even legislation supported by approximately 9 in ten Americans.

Conservative Media, NRA Revived False Attacks For Biggest Background Check Push Since The Brady Bill

The most significant push to improve upon the Brady Act followed the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 children and six educators dead. The final Senate proposal to expand the Brady Law, known as Manchin-Toomey, would have required background checks for all commercial firearms sales, such as those that occur at gun shows. Because the 1994 Brady Act only required licensed firearms dealers to perform background checks on buyers, a substantial proportion of gun transactions are still completed without background checks due to so-called “private sellers” at gun shows, through newspaper classified sections, and increasingly over the Internet.

In April 2013, the Manchin-Toomey proposal received a majority vote in the Senate but was filibustered by the vast majority of the Republican caucus and a handful of Democrats.

The primary right-wing argument against the legislation -- created by the NRA and pushed by conservative media -- was a paranoid lie. Despite language in Manchin-Toomey that created criminal penalties for creating a national gun registry -- an act that is already prohibited by a 1986 federal law -- conservative media claimed that the legislation would create a national gun registry and fearmongered about the prospect of gun confiscation.

Without supporting evidence, claims about the creation of a gun registry were featured on Fox News, conservative media news sites and unsurprisingly advanced by legislators who opposed expanding background checks. The NRA also pushed untruths about the proposal in the media including a falsehood-filled op-ed in The Hill and an appearance by NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre on Fox Business, where he claimed the background check legislation would create “a registry of all the law-abiding people in the country that own firearms” and suggested that the federal government would use a list of gun owners for confiscation.

Conservative media celebrated Manchin-Toomey's defeat by offering vicious attacks on Newtown families and gun violence survivor former Rep. Gabby Giffords and by claiming that the filibuster was a victory for the Second Amendment, despite Manchin-Toomey's obvious constitutionality.