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Fighting A Giant: Brady Vs. NRA

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FightingThe NRA, the Washington-based gun lobby that boasts nearly three million members and the power to make or break legislators, has taken aim at the Brady bill, arguing that it infringes on the Second Amendment right “to keep and bear arms.” But the bill has won the support of law enforcement associations and big-city mayors across the country and, in March, it received an unexpected endorsement from a longtime NRA member–Reagan himself. Even President George Bush has said that he would forgo his threatened veto of the measure if Congress, in return, agrees to pass his anti-crime package, which would expand the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty and limit appeals by death-row inmates. Still, the Brady bill’s backers say that they expect a fierce battle when it reaches the full House of Representatives in early May, and later when it goes to the Senate. “It’s going to be a big job,” said Charles Schumer, chairman of the House crime and criminal justice sub-committee. “This is a close, close, close vote. And I’ll be happy if we win by one vote.”

There is no doubting that handguns are killing Americans in alarming numbers. In 1988, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, they were the weapon of choice in the murders of 1,641 teenagers aged 15 to 19, up from 1,022 in 1984. And gun-wielding people are attacking twice as many blacks as whites, even though blacks represent only 12 per cent of the American population (page 25). In fact, more than 80 per cent of black male teenagers who died between 1984 and 1987 were gunshot victims. Dr. Sandra Ezell, chief of the trauma unit at the District of Columbia General Hospital, expressed her revulsion at the carnage. “It is a feeling of anger, disgust and helplessness,” she said. “You bring people back from the throes of death, and they go right back out ther and kill again.”

But the issue at the heart of the Brady bill debate is whether a seven-day waiting period would really be effective in curbing handgun deaths. Gun-control advocates say that it would. They argue that the bill, the first federal measure to restrict handgun sales since the 1960s, offers a one-week, so-called cooling-off period that would allow potential killers to reconsider their actions between the time that they apply to buy a handgun and their final purchase. The gun dealer would also inform the police, who could check their records to see whether the applicant is a convicted felon or has been deemed mentally ill.

New York City Police Commissioner Lee Brown, one of the bill’s supporters, acknowledged: “We’ve never said it will be a panacea–it won’t stop crime.” But, he added, “If it saves one life, then the Brady bill is worth it.” The Brady campaign, meanwhile, has run large advertisements in U.S. newspapers claiming that the bill would in fact save thousands of lives and prevent tens of thousands of crippling injuries. Brady, pictured pointedly in his wheelchair, also contends that “too many members of Congress are afraid of the gun lobby”–and too many accept the lobby’s campaign money.

In fact, some analysts in Washington now say that Reagan’s endorsement of the Brady bill could provide political camouflage for congressmen who fear the NRA’s retaliation at re-election time. Hampered by internal disputes and falling membership, the gun lobby may not be quite as formidable an opponent as it was in 1988, when Congress defeated an earlier version of the Brady bill. Still, the organization has launched a concerted campaign to defeat it again. NRA lobbyists argue that the bill would not compel the police to make background checks and that, in any case, the vast majority of criminals buy their guns not from stores but on the black market. They cite such studies as one by Tulane University sociologist James Wright, who found that only 17 per cent of a sample of convicted felons bought their handguns from licensed gun dealers. Declared the NRA’s legislative director, Wayne LaPierre: “I think their bill is a smoke screen.”

Armed with a formidable war chest–an estimated $80 million in annual funding, compared with less than $7 million for the Bradys’ group–the NRA has mailed out fund-raising letters that attempt to tap into the patriotic fervor that pervaded the United States during the Persian Gulf War. They equate the liberation of Kuwait with the rights of America’s 60 to 70 million pistol and revolver owners–about one U.S. household in four has a handgun. And the NRA has launched a counteroffensive by backing the so-called Staggers bill. Named for Representative Harley Staggers, the West Virginia Democrat who sponsors it, the bill would require gun dealers, at the point of purchase, to perform an instant check of computerized police records to screen out convicts. But many law enforcement officials dismiss the Staggers bill as a costly and untenable venture, noting that only three out of the 50 states have computerized police records that could be tapped nationally. And in November, 1989, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh reported that it would take up to 10 years to computerize all the records–at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Said Police Commissioner Brown: “The Staggers bill is totally unworkable.”

Despite the NRA’s counteroffensive, James and Sarah Brady express stoic determination to push their bill through Congress. It has been a tough fight. During a speech at George Washington University in March, hecklers hurled epithets at 49-year-old Sarah Brady, calling her a “Nazi” and a “skinhead,” and prompting her 12-year-old son, James Jr., to jump up on stage to defend her.

Raised by a conservative, middle-class family in Alexandria, Va., Sarah Brady seems an unlikely warrior in the gun-control camp. But the bullet that pierced her husband’s brain also transformed the genteel woman into an impassioned crusader. She insists that her quest is not an attempt to assuage the wounds that she suffered from her husband’s brush with death. “No, it’s not therapy,” she told Maclean’s. “I don’t need therapy. I got over my frustration. I grieved like we all do when you’re a victim and got over that and have no bitterness.” But she added: “I do feel it’s important. I think it’s ridiculous that we as a society don’t do something about the violence.” The question, as congressmen prepared to act on the Brady bill, was whether they would take their advice from David–or Goliath.

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