President Bill Clinton & Gun Control

Instructor: Mary Ruth Sanders Bracy

Mary Ruth teaches college history and has a PhD.

This lesson will examine President Bill Clinton and his accomplishments on gun control policies. It will focus on two specific things: the Brady Bill (passed in 1993) and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (passed in 1994).

Can the Government Limit Constitutional Rights?

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives its citizens the right to bear arms. Should that right ever be limited?

President Bill Clinton believed so, and during the 1990s signed important laws regulating the sale and transportation of firearms.

President Bill Clinton and Gun Control

During his time in office, President Bill Clinton approved multiple gun control measures. The two most important were:

  • The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993; also known as the Brady Bill)
  • The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act (1994; also known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban)

Both of these laws were designed to keep firearms out of the hands of those who should not have them, and also to limit the types of weapons that could be accessed easily in the United States. Let's look at each of these in more detail.

President Bill Clinton
President Bill Clinton

The Brady Bill

Background

On March 30, 1981, a man named John Hinckley Jr., attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, shooting the president; a Secret Service agent; a Washington D.C., police officer; and the president's press secretary, Jim Brady. Brady was shot in the head and left partially paralyzed. Hinckley had used a fake address and photo ID to purchase the gun he used to shoot the president. As a response to the shooting, Jim Brady's wife, Sarah, became a gun control advocate. Believing that Hinckley never should have been allowed to purchase a handgun, Sarah pushed for a law that would create a system of background checks for gun purchases. The resulting law was the Brady Bill, signed on November 30, 1993.

Chaos after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan
Reagan

What Did the Brady Bill Do?

The chief accomplishment of the Brady Bill was requiring background checks of anyone buying a firearm from a federally licensed dealer. At first it did so by requiring a five-day waiting period on gun purchases while officials ran the required background checks, but with the creation of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) in 1998, the background checks became nearly instantaneous. The Brady Bill also allowed states to conduct their own background checks to substitute for the requirements of the Brady Bill. (For example, someone with a state-issued handgun license would not need a Brady check.)

Another thing the Brady Bill did was limit gun purchases by particular groups of people by forbidding them from transporting or receiving firearms. These included:

  • People convicted of felonies
  • Fugitives from justice
  • People addicted to controlled substances
  • Those who a court had declared ''mentally unstable''
  • People living in the United States illegally
  • Individuals dishonorably discharged from the U.S. military
  • People who had renounced U.S. citizenship
  • Individuals who had been subject to a restraining order or convicted of domestic violence

What Was the Brady Bill's Impact?

The Brady Bill had a mixed reception from the beginning. Some gun control advocates felt that it did not go far enough because it did not require background checks from people who sold guns individually (meaning, if you purchased a gun from someone who was not federally licensed to sell it, like from a friend, that person would not have to run a background check).

At the same time, some people saw the law as a violation of constitutional rights, especially the Second Amendment (that contains the right of citizens to bear arms) and the 10th Amendment (that grants individual states powers not explicitly reserved to the federal government). The National Rifle Association lobbied hard against the bill. Republicans even filibustered it, which means they were almost able to keep the bill from being voted on at all.

In the end, however, the bill passed just before Thanksgiving in 1994. In 1997, the Supreme Court declared parts of the law unconstitutional but kept the major framework in place. Opponents had argued that the part of the bill that required local law enforcement to conduct background checks was unconstitutional under the 10th Amendment. The court agreed but continued to allow background checks by firearms dealers.

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