A video from National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre offered a false history of the passage of the 1993 Brady background check bill in order to attack President Obama's recently released executive actions on gun violence.
In the video, the NRA attempts to position itself as the heroic creator of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), when in reality the gun group fiercely fought the passage of the Brady bill and then later attempted to have the Supreme Court invalidate the entire law.
On January 5, Obama announced during a speech from the White House that his administration is taking executive action to address gun violence in light of Congress' inaction following several high-profile mass shootings.
A large share of media coverage on Obama's move focused on the president's plan to expand background checks by clarifying what it means to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms, although the plan also includes provisions addressing effective enforcement of existing gun laws, funding for mental health treatment, and developing gun safety technology.
In a January 6 response video, the NRA attempted to cast itself as the actual authority on background checks. In purporting to tell a history of the Brady bill, the legislation that was responsible for the creation of the national background check system for gun purchases, LaPierre falsely claimed, “The best-kept secret is that the National Instant Check System wouldn't exist at all if it weren't for the NRA”:
LAPIERRE: The best-kept secret is that the National Instant Check System wouldn't exist at all if it weren't for the NRA. It's true. Back in the '90s, President Clinton forced passage of a mandatory waiting period on every handgun purchase in America. Not a background check. A wait.
But NRA said as soon as the technology was available, their wait had to be replaced by an instant background check, done by the dealer, at the point of sale. NRA supported it, NRA got the votes and NRA got it passed.
The NRA's claim is false for several reasons, many of which can be found in a legislative history of the bill's passage in UCLA law professor Adam Winkler's 2013 book Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms In America.
- The NRA only proposed what became NICS in an attempt to derail the Brady bill by including provisions that were not technologically feasible. To their chagrin, a compromise was introduced that gave the federal government five years to develop the technology before it became mandatory. Winkler writes, “Sarah Brady was an incredibly sympathetic character, and LaPierre knew that tackling her head-on was a recipe for a public relations disaster. So he pushed the NRA's allies in Congress to add to the Brady bill a provision that critics said would render the law ineffective. LaPierre's amendment would mandate instantaneous computerized background checks and a waiting period no longer than twenty-four hours. According to critics, this reasonable sounding proposal had one major flaw: it was not yet technologically feasible.”
- The final version of the Brady bill included the creation of NICS, which was to go into effect in 1998. The NRA was furious. According to Winkler, an NRA publication claimed, “When Bill Clinton signed the Brady Bill into law on November 30, a drop of blood dripped from the finger of the sovereign American citizen.”
- The NRA challenged the constitutionality of the Brady law in a case that made it to the Supreme Court in 1997. The NRA's primary argument was that the law was unconstitutional because it "commandeered" state governments by forcing them to carry out functions that the federal government cannot force them to do under the 10th Amendment. The NRA could have limited its argument to say that state authorities did not have to perform Brady background checks, essentially pausing the national background check system until 1998 when NICS would come online (states would still be free to run background checks under the Brady bill, but the federal government couldn't force them to do so). Instead, the NRA argued, “the whole Statute must be voided.” If this argument would have been successful, NICS would have never been implemented.
- Claims that the NRA wanted comprehensive background checks during the legislative fight over the Brady bill should be treated with extreme skepticism, as the gun group repeatedly fought to weaken the bill. One example is the Gekas amendment to the Brady bill, where the NRA urged its allies in Congress to introduce a provision allowing a gun dealer to go forward with a sale after three business days, even if the background check had not been completed. The amendment received widespread attention following the June 2015 mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The gunman in that shooting should have failed the background check he underwent while purchasing the gun he used in his attack, but instead the sale proceeded after three days because NICS had not yet been able to locate his prohibiting record.