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'Brady'-Type Bills Stopped Felons from Buying Guns

By Pierre Thomas
The Washington Post

States with waiting periods and background checks for handgun purchases similar to those in the Brady bill have stopped tens of thousands of felons and other prohibited individuals from buying weapons through gun dealers, a random survey of states shows.

Since 1989, computerized background checks or similar waiting period programs in California, Florida, Virginia and Maryland have blocked more than 47,000 attempted purchases by persons who at the time were banned from buying firearms. The states are among at least 25 that now have some restrictions on handgun purchases similar to those included in the Brady bill, which President Clinton is scheduled to sign into law Tuesday.

States with laws more stringent than the Brady bill can continue to use their current screening methods and waiting periods once the new federal law is in place. But the change in federal gun laws will require states with less stringent restrictions to move quickly to put into place the five-day waiting period and background check required under the Brady bill.

The legislation, the most far-reaching nationwide gun control measure enacted in at least a decade, will take effect 90 days after Clinton signs it. The bill provides $200 million to help states update and computerize their criminal records so gun dealers can conduct instant background checks.

Although the laws can do nothing to stop illegal street sales of weapons, in Virginia and Flordia instant background checks have helped authorities not only screen out prohibited individuals but hundreds of fugitives wanted on other crimes as well.

Since 1991, Florida officials say their telephone check system and three-day waiting period have stopped 658 people wanted on felony crimes from buying handguns, shotguns and rifles. Virginia, which uses a telephone check system to screen prospective buyers, reports 330 such thwarted sales during the same period.

"I don't think it's going to cure the problem, but every time you catch a wanted felon -- and we have caught hundreds -- trying to buy guns, it's going to help," said John Joyce, spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

"In the long debate about Brady, the focus was always on the waiting period," said Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) spokesman Jack Killorin. "The key has always been the background check. The law may have more impact than people think."

In California, 21,168 sales have been blocked since 1989 under the state's 15-day waiting period. Virginia has blocked 5,879 and Maryland 3,647 during the same period. Florida since 1991 has stopped 16,513.

Federal and state gun laws generally preclude firearm purchases by convicted felons, some misdemeanants and those deemed by a court to be mentally incompetent. But many states have had no mechanism for checking criminal records or mental histories when gun purchasers show up at stores.

The Brady bill, named for former White House press secretary James S. Brady who was wounded during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, imposes a waiting period of five business days for the purchase of handguns, during which police are required to conduct a background check of prospective buyers. The waiting period would be dropped after five years, when a national computerized instant-check system is supposed to be operational.

Authorities say the numbers blocked from buying guns represent only a small percentage of more than a million purchase attempts from authorized gun dealers. Federal officials estimate that somewhere between 2 and 6 percent of the overall 7.5 million annual firearms sales would likely be stopped under the Brady legislation.

But here, the officials say, percentages do not tell the full story. The existing background checks show that thousands of prohibited persons are routinely walking into gun stores and trying to buy guns. Unless some state barrier exists, they are usually successful.

Killorin said the felons and others stopped by state laws represent "people who absent a record check would have bought guns and then law enforcement would have had to deal with them. Proven crooks. People who have broken their contracts with society."

The Brady bill's passage last week ended a nearly decade-long battle in Congress. The approval by unanimous consent came as Republicans -- eager to avoid being seen as sabotaging an immensely popular bill aimed at curbing gun violence -- abandoned filibustering that held the measure up for five days. They appeared as late as a week ago to have thwarted its passage.

But while law enforcement officials from states with similar measures tout the Brady bill's potential to help the crime problem, they nonetheless recognize that it alone will not address the mammoth societal ill of violence.