FOR SEVEN YEARS, a wheelchair-bound James S. Brady and his
wife, Sarah, fought for passage of national legislation to regulate
the sale of handguns. They were unrelenting advocates, pitted
against the lobbyists of the National Rifle Association.
They watched a bill requiring buyer-background checks die, get
revived, cause a congressional standoff and finally, in late 1993,
pass both houses to become the first major gun-control law in a
The Brady act, named for the former press secretary who was
disabled in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald
Reagan, was immediately challenged by local sheriffs, who must
perform the background checks, as an unconstitutional infringement
on their power.
Now, the most controversial gun-control bill of the era has
reached the Supreme Court, just as the justices are questioning
whether Congress is imposing too much of its will on local
authorities. Oral arguments on the case are set for Tuesday.
Sarah Brady, chairman of Handgun Control Inc., said, "We're
concerned - there is reason to be, with the court makeup the way it
is. . . . But it seems incredible that we could lose something that
has worked so beautifully" in keeping guns out of the hands of
Many local sheriffs do not see it that way and complain the
federal government has no right to force local law-enforcers to
carry out Washington's crime policies.
"If we still believe in the notion of `government by, for and
of the people,' how can we go along with this?" asked Richard Mack,
sheriff of Graham County, Ariz. "The federal government is coming
into my county and telling me I have to answer to it, that I have
to run criminal-background checks on innocent citizens of Graham
County, who are merely exercising their Second Amendment rights."
Under the new law, a gun dealer must give the local sheriff the
name of a would-be buyer, then wait five business days to hear back
about the person's background before completing the sale. During
that time, the sheriff is supposed to check state, local and
national crime records and inform the dealer if the buyer is a
convicted felon or otherwise would be barred from buying a handgun.
Mack and Ravalli County Sheriff Jay Printz in Montana, whose
case is also before the justices, said the background information
they must pursue came from many sources and took time his deputies
could be spending on real crime-fighting.
Defending the law, the Justice Department said it sought
"modest assistance" from local officials to ensure felons were not
allowed to buy firearms. During the recent election campaign,
President Bill Clinton praised the gun-control law, saying it has
taken firearms out of the hands of thousands of violent criminals.
A group of 11 senators who sponsored the Brady law also argued
in a "friend-of-the-court" brief that background checks had
prevented "more than 100,000 felons and other prohibited persons"
from purchasing handguns since it was passed. …