Commentary

Gun Foes Should Tell the Whole Story

This article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on March 30, 1991.

Ten years ago, on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan with a Saturday Night Special. Although Reagan recovered, Press Secretary Jim Brady was crippled for life by Hinckley’s bullet. If there had been a law requiring a background check and a waiting period before handgun purchases, Hinckley would have been stopped. But because of the National Rifle Association’s might in Washington, there is no waiting period.

It’s a compelling story, and it’s all true, except the most important part - that a waiting period would have thwarted Hinckley.

Handgun Control Inc. chair Sarah Brady, wife of Hinckley’s victim, has campaigned coast to coast for a national waiting period. “This shooting could have been prevented if legislation such as that proposed here (the waiting period) had been in force in 1981,” she insists.

Handgun Control raises millions of dollars through direct-mail solicitations complaining that Hinckley bought his handguns without a criminal or mental records check. But the fundraisers don’t mention that Hinckley had no felony record and no public record of mental illness.

Despite the misleading implications about criminal and mental record checks in the fundraising, Mrs. Brady doesn’t formally claim that such checks would have affected Hinckley. Rather, she often argues: “He lied about his address and used an old Texas driver’s license to purchase that revolver. He was not a Texas resident. A police check would have stopped him from buying a handgun in Texas.” (Persons can only buy handguns in the state where they reside.)

The trouble is, the evidence indicates that Hinckley was a lawful Texas resident. He bought the guns in Lubbock in October 1980, six months before the assassination attempt. That summer he had attended both sessions at Texas Tech in Lubbock. According to federal rules, a university student is considered a resident of the jurisdiction in which he attends school and may purchase firearms there. Hinckley was also listed in the Lubbock phone book.

Significantly, after the assassination attempt, Hinckley was subjected to an intensive federal investigation. The Department of Justice used every resource possible to ensure his conviction. Notably, Hinckley was not charged with illegally purchasing the handguns in Texas. Had the prosecutors believed that he was guilty of an illegal gun purchase, felony charges would probably have been brought. After all, Hinckley would then have had to convince a jury that he was insane, not just on the day of the assassination but six months before, when he bought his two handguns.

If the full resources of the Department of Justice did not find enough evidence to charge Hinckley with an unlawful gun purchase, it is not realistic to claim that a seven-day background check would have found the exact same transaction illegal. Besides, Handgun Control promises Congress that the waiting period is just a simple criminal and mental records check, not a detailed residency verification.

Finally, it is true that when Hinckley was asked to provide identification at the time he bought the guns, he offered a Texas driver’s license with an old address. But there’s nothing illegal about that. It’s no crime to offer outdated information on a federal gun purchase form, unless the information relates to eligibility to purchase. A person’s address within a particular state doesn’t affect his eligibility. (Nor does his age, as long as he’s over 21.)

The proposal for a waiting period and background check is called the Brady Bill. Its most effective advocate is Sarah Brady. Her story about how a waiting period would have stopped John Hinckley from shooting her husband is heart-rending - and false.

Sad to say, many of the words put in Mrs. Brady’s mouth by the copywriters from Handgun Control aren’t true. For example, one Handgun Control advertisement depicts Mrs. Brady saying, “A $29 handgun shattered my family’s life.” Actually, Hinckley’s gun cost $47. The difference doesn’t really matter, so why didn’t Handgun Control tell the truth and use the right number?

Mrs. Brady depicts herself as someone who first became involved in the gun control battle in 1985, when she became “enraged” at an NRA effort to weaken federal gun laws. In fact, she’s been a gun control worker most of her adult life, starting in 1973. This difference is important. If Handgun Control used the earlier date, it would decrease Mrs. Brady’s credibility.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have given their money, and hundreds of politicians have given their votes, to Sarah Brady and her story about how a national gun law would have saved her husband. At the urging of Handgun Control, newspaper editorials around the country are repeating the story this week. The story is a lie. Before Congress votes on the Brady bill, it should impose a cooling-off period and background check on itself and investigate the facts behind Mrs. Brady’s claims.

David Kopel is an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.