TEN years ago this week, on March 30, 1981, a mentally ill young man with an across-the-counter handgun tried to assassinate President Reagan. John Hinckley's bullets found not only the president, but also his press secretary, James Brady. Now Mr. Brady, who remains incapacitated by his head wound, wants to make it harder for people to walk into a store and buy a lethal weapon as casually as a pair of shoes. Last week Brady and his wife, Sarah, were on Capitol Hill testifying in favor of a bill that would create a mandatory seven-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns. The waiting period would allow local police to check to see if a prospective handgun buyer has a criminal record or a history of mental illness.
Naturally, the National Rifle Association opposes even this modest effort to keep pistols out of the hands of people who probably would misuse them. The NRA claims that criminals would find ways to obtain guns anyway, and so the waiting period would only inconvenience law-abiding purchasers.
Sure, hard-core criminals would go on building arsenals through black-market sources. But it's still likely that police background checks during a waiting period would intercept handguns bound for crooked or unstable applicants. Equally important, the delay could serve as a cooling-off period for the person who, in a moment of uncommon desperation, panic, or passion, seeks a gun to commit a crime or wreak revenge. More gun-related violence occurs in hot anger than in cool calculation.
A week-long "inconveniencing" of legitimate handgun buyers is a very small burden on them, and could reap very large rewards.
The NRA supports an alternative bill that would require handgun sellers to call a toll-free number tied to a national data base, in order to check out a purchaser's record. The bill is disingenuous, however, as no such data base exists or could be reliably compiled in the near future.
Wanton gunfire is staining America's streets and reputation with blood. It must be curbed. The Brady Bill will help, if only a little. It's time for Congress to heed the demand of 95 percent of the people and enact a national waiting period.