MOUNTING public anger over handgun violence, particularly now among children, has helped push the Brady bill out of congressional limbo after two years of being stalled.
The measure, requiring a five-day waiting period before buying a gun from a licensed dealer, was unexpectedly approved last week by a US House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee.
Rep. Jack Brooks (D) of Texas, the Judiciary Committee chairman who has opposed the measure, acknowledged his decision to send the bill to the full committee this week was in response to increased pressure from colleagues who favor the bill. The Senate also will debate an identical measure this week.
Pressure also comes from the White House, since the Brady bill is part of President Clinton's anti-crime package. The president has repeatedly said he will sign the Brady bill if Congress approves it.
The measure is named for former White House press secretary James Brady, who was shot during the assassination attempt on President Reagan, and is designed to allow authorities five days to check the backgrounds of those wanting to buy handguns.
Over $100 million in federal funds would also be made available to states to upgrade computer capability to scan their files for either known criminals, or people with a history of mental instability, and to provide a ``cooling off'' period for those buying guns in anger.
``About half of all states now have some form of background check or waiting period,'' says Susan Whitmore, director of communication for Handgun Control Inc. in Washington, D.C. ``What the Brady bill will do is establish a uniform standard for states to follow. As it stands now, in many states criminals can purchase guns without any check at all.''
Opponents of the Brady bill, led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), insist that the bill is virtually meaningless because guns bought by criminals usually come from the black market.
``What is going to pass, if the bill does pass,'' says Joe Phillips, a spokesman for the NRA, ``is a symbolic victory for the other side. The Brady bill now is not what it was six years ago when they introduced it. They have scaled back their legislation to the point where they have nothing substantive. Our focus is going to remain on the instant check system regardless of whether the Brady bill passes or not.''
Five states now have computer systems that do background checks on handgun buyers at the point of sale: Florida, Illinois, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Delaware. ``Florida can do in two minutes what it takes California to do in two weeks,'' says Mr. Phillips. ``This is much more effective than simply mandating a waiting period.''
A spokesman for the Delaware state police says it takes from eight to nine minutes for a buyer to get approval after the licensed dealer calls in the name. ``But state law says we have to destroy the record of the approval within 30 days,'' says the spokesman. Why? ``The law says the state cannot have a record of people who own guns,'' he says, ``but we do keep a record of the disapproved people.''
If the Brady bill does pass, advocates for handgun control are expected next to press for changes in federal licensing of handgun dealers.
According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), there are approximately 285,000 federal firearm licensees. ``Of those only about 15,000 are storefront gunshops, and another 5,000 have gun sections in sporting goods stores,'' says Ms. Whitmore. ``The rest operate in their homes or garages with virtually no regulation at all because the ATF isn't staffed to monitor them.'' Just about anyone with $30 can fill out a two-page form and obtain a license to sell, ship, and receive firearms and ammunition. Anti-handgun organizations suggest that the license fee be raised to $1,000 or more and that a thorough background check be mandatory.