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Five Lives a Brady Bill Might Have Saved

Texas incident makes a stark case for waiting period

By Joe Patrick BeanJoe Patrick Bean is an assistant professor of history and journalism at Concordia Lutheran College in Austin, Texas. / May 7, 1991



THE blood of a Houston family is on the heads of the National Rifle Association and every member of Congress who continues to oppose enactment of the Brady Bill. Chung Dinh Vu, a 42-year-old carpenter, was despondent when his wife of 19 years left him and filed for divorce. On the morning of April 18, he bought a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol. That evening, he used the handgun he'd legally purchased only hours earlier to kill all four of his children before turning it on himself.

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Single shots to their heads destroyed the precious, innocent lives of Hong Lam Vu, 18, her younger sisters, Yen Ngoc Vu, 16, and Huyen Ngoc Vu, 8, and brother, Long Mong Vu, 12.

If 228 members of the US House of Representatives hadn't caved in to pressure from the NRA in 1988 and voted against the Brady Bill, it might now be law. If Speaker Thomas Foley hadn't blocked a House vote on the Brady Bill last year, it might now be law.

If the Brady Bill had already been in effect, the measure's requirement that a prospective handgun purchaser wait seven days to take delivery of the weapon, while undergoing a thorough background check, just might have saved the lives of Mr. Vu and his four children in Houston last month.

In Mr. Vu's case, the background check itself probably would have accomplished little. If he had no criminal record or history of mental illness - Houston newspaper accounts have not reported that he did - he ultimately would have received clearance to buy that .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol.

But only after he had waited a week. Seven days he could have spent with his children, reminding himself how much he loved them. Seven days he could have thought about how much his own life was worth, too. Seven days he could have used to talk himself out of committing a rash act that would claim five lives.

The NRA offers as an alternative to the Brady Bill a measure introduced by Rep. Harley Staggers (D-West Virginia). This proposal would establish a national computerized handgun hotline to conduct instant point-of-sale checks of prospective buyers' criminal histories.

The system Mr. Staggers proposes is many years and millions of dollars away from being feasible, since few states currently computerize such records. But even if it had already been on-line, it probably could not have prevented Mr. Vu from buying his handgun.

As this Houston murder-suicide case tragically shows, a uniform national seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases is badly needed. The Staggers Bill does not include it. Only the Brady Bill does, and that, in the long term, could prove to be the measure's most valuable life-saving provision.

But the NRA obstinately refuses to admit that a waiting period is justified, claiming that it would unnecessarily and unfairly infringe on the right of law-abiding Americans to purchase handguns. Yet Mr. Vu apparently was a law-abiding American - until the very last day of his life. Today, he and his four children are dead.

The NRA and its congressional allies may be able to live with that blood on their heads. They may be willing to accept the inevitability that this kind of preventable carnage will occur again and again throughout the US if the Brady Bill once again fails to become law. But the rest of us surely are not.