Brady Act Faces Fire in High Court Lately, Justices Have Taken on Federalism

Article excerpt

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 quarter century.

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 criminals. 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. …


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