The Brady Handgun Violence Act

Executive summary

The Brady Handgun Violence Act was a 1993 piece of legislation that was passed amid a heated debate on whether it would be effective in reducing the number of “inappropriate people” who purchase guns from licensed weapon dealers and later uses them for criminal purposes either on themselves by suicide or on others by homicides. Before the bill was made into law, Congress extensively debates the bill. The opponents of the bill argued that the regulation of the primary–regulated weapons market would not do the country any good if the secondary-unregulated market remains “unregulated”. Proponents of the bill however argued that more than 50 percent of all suicides or homicides in the United States were committed using weapons owned by the perpetrator or by a family member. As such, the proponents argued that any law that promises to bring even the slightest positive change in the number of homicides and suicide rates in America was worth embracing. In 1994, the Brady Act was passed and since then, there has been wide ranging debate regarding the effect of the Act. While some researcher’s state that Brady has lowered suicide and homicides in some states, others claim that there is no quantifiable evidence to support this claim.


The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was enacted in 1994 to regulate gun trade. The Act gives dealers in the weapon trade a chance to conduct rigorous background checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) on people seeking to purchase handguns. The dealers qualified to make such background checks needed to have received federal licenses (Ludwig & Cook, 2000). In addition, the Act sought to regulate the purchase of guns within the adult population aged 21 years and above. Anyone below 21 years of age had earlier been barred from purchasing guns by a law passed in 1968.

The justification behind the Brady Act was that the five day waiting period will dissuade any one intending to purchase a gun on an impulse criminal motive. Such motives include intent to shoot oneself out of anger and frustration or the intent to kill someone based on an argument. It was argued that the five-day waiting period will give such people enough room to change their minds (Ludwig & Cook, 2000). The vetting that would be conducted on the gun purchaser during the five days would also help the handgun dealers unearth the criminal past of the intending purchasers, and if found to have a felony record, the dealer had the right to refuse to sell the gun to the person.

Overall, the intent of the Brady Act was meant to be the reduction of unnecessary shootings, which usually happened when the gun is handled by an irresponsible person and for the wrong reasons. According to Ludwig and Cook (2000), the Act primarily sought to reduce firearm homicides and suicides by the adult population. Additionally, the Act sought to reduce the flow of guns in the specific states where the law was applied. This was especially so considering that quite a significant number of handguns bought from federal licensed dealers usually found their way into the secondary unlicensed gun market. A review of different literature reveals that though not a complete failure, the Brady act gave states a half-baked solution to the handgun problem. This is because, it failed to address the secondary market that people purchases guns from.

Thesis Statement

This study argues that when gun purchasers are faced with bureaucratic hurdles in their quest to purchase guns, they will no doubt turn to other alternatives purchase channels, where they can purchase the gun without so many rigors.


This study seeks to find out if indeed the Act has been successful in its intentions to reduce homicides and suicides committed using weapons, especially considering that there is still a thriving secondary market for handguns and other weapons


This study is based on a review of the existing literature.

Literature review

Brigham (2003) has covered the subject of restrictions applied on lethal weapons. In his study, he addresses the values and challenges that come up whenever a government puts restrictions in place to regulate the propagation and use of weapons. Notably, guns are identified as the primary means of suicide in the US, with more than 50 percent of all suicides committed using guns (Brigham, 2003). These statistics thus justify the reasoning behind the Brady Act. However, it is also apparent that the Brady Act alone cannot significantly reduce suicide incidences. According to Brigham (2003), person’s intent to commit suicide can also substitute one method of committing the same with another. This then means that even when the suicide equipment is not a gun, a mind intent on committing suicide could always find an alternative method of doing so. The use of drugs remains one of the probable method that people with a suicide motive can still use, without having to face many hindrances in the purchase process. Although the presence of a gun in a home or the easy access of the same through non-rigorous purchase is identified as a risk factor for suicide, it is also apparent that suicide rates could drastically go down if governments addressed other lethal means through which people commit suicides or homicides (Brigham, 2003).

According to Kapusta et al. (2007), suicide prevention attempts by governments generally encounter resistance when such attempts result in greater restrictions even for people who would have no suicide motives when purchasing weapons. Regardless of the resistance they face, it is notable that such laws contribute significantly to the reduction of suicides among culpable groups (Kapusta et al., 2007). However, it is notable that suicide attempts go hand-in-hand with mental disorders. This means that if governments were to succeed in reducing the number of suicides considerably, the attention would have to be on the prevention of mental disorders which acts as a trigger for suicidal thoughts. When such is addressed then, the bulk of the Brady Act would be a preventative measure to prevent purchase of guns for use on criminal acts rather than for use on suicide (Kapusta Et al., 2007).

Price & Morris (2008) notes that the government acknowledges the link between mental instability and suicide and a press release by the FBI dated April 2007 confirmed the same. In an FBI press release, it is stated that 22 states had submitted mental health information and records regarding their residence population to the NICS. This would make the screening of gun purchasers for mental stability easier (Price & Morris, 2008). It is however unlikely that all states would coordinate effectively to create databases of people suffering from mental conditions. With this in mind, it is apparent therefore that this posed a loophole in the Brady Act meaning that mentally unstable people could still access guns. However, Price & Morris (2008) notes that although people with mental illnesses are perceived by the public as dangerous, the debate regarding theory relationship with substance abuse was still inconclusive. As such, the Brady’s Act assumption that there was an increased risk when mentally unstable people accessed weapons was largely baseless (Manson et al, 1999).

At the height of the implementation of the Brady Act, Ludwig and Cook (2000) surveyed the effect of the law on reduction of homicides and suicides. In the study they classified 18 states which had strict gun law before the Brady Act as “Control group states”. They then classified the 32 states that had less strict rules before Brady as “Experimental group states”. It was established that the only reduction occurred in people aged 55 years and above. There could be a reason to this trend of people aged 55 years and above. First, it could be that people in that age are deterred from purchasing guns by the act, or it could be that they could have switched to alternative means of committing suicide. Considering that poisoning is notably the second means through which people aged 65 years and above commit suicide (Stevens et al., 1999), it is highly likely people aged above 55 years simply considered poisoning a more viable and flexible way of committing suicide. The analysis regarding the suicide committed by people in the 55 and above age group was confirmed by Ludwig & Cook (2000) through a revelation that indeed the suicide rates through other means rose significantly in the experimental-group states. Their analysis found several challenges which could have jeopardized the intended effect of the Brady Act. The main challenge remained the proliferation of weapons in the secondary market, which remained largely unregulated.

The situation in the secondary market meant that people who were deterred from purchasing arms by the new law could easily access the same through the alternative market. Further findings by Ludwig & Cook (2000) suggested that the enactment of the Brady Act had a negative effect on the flow of weapons in the secondary market from states that had not enacted the Act to states where the law was in place. As a result, interstate guns (guns bought from states with more lenient gun purchase laws) found their way into states where the Brady Act had been enacted. Ludwig & Cook (2000) notes that the little effect of the Act on suicides and homicides could be associated to the fact that most of the guns used for violent actions in states subject to the Brady Act were purchased from the secondary market rather than the licensed dealers. As such, any regulation on the primary-regulated weapon market would fail to have the desired effect unless there was some form of regulation on the secondary market.


Based on the literature review carried out in this study, it has been established that the Brady Act was intended to limit the access to weapons by two groups of people: 1) felons, and 2) mentally unstable people. In view of the evidence in the literature review section, it is apparent that the governing structures, mainly the FBI lack the machinery necessary to verify the mental stableness of a person who wants to purchase a gun. Even with the five day waiting period, a mentally unstable person whose mental status is not documented in the FBI database could easily be cleared as a “viable” weapon purchaser. If there is indeed a link between gun violence and mental instability as some studies suggest (Price & Whatmore, 1967), then that means that the Brady Act failed by its in ability to handle the specific loophole brought about by the lack of proper mental stability screening mechanisms.

Criminals are easily able to circumvent the law by: 1) purchasing handguns from the unregulated secondary market or 2) having their friends or accomplices who have clean criminal records to purchase the guns on their behalf. This means that the Brady Act though successful to a particular degree in reducing the number of disqualified people, who purchase guns from legal dealers, fails in completely preventing felons from acquiring guns and probably using the same in criminal activities.

Cook (2000) notes that the five-day waiting period in Brady Act was replaced with an instant checking system in 1998. Interestingly, there was an increase in gun-based suicides after this change in the legislation was made. However, the effect of the same was negated by the fact that this trend was not witnessed in the Brady-states alone. Rather, the trend was observed even in states where Brady was not enforced thus suggesting that some external factors may have been at play.

Contribution to knowledge

This study contributes to knowledge by giving insight into the already existing literature that evaluates the effects of the Brady Act. Of essence is this study look at previous studies and the attempt it does in evaluating the different studies to bring forth a more accurate conclusion.


Based on the evidence found in previous studies, it is apparent that the Brady Act did not attain the goals and objectives that Congress had when passing it. Although the Clinton administration, which the bill was passed under, still insisted that this assertion was baseless. In 1996 for example, the number of guns purchase proposals from the entire population in the 32 states where the Brady law was applicable was 44,000. In the same year however, gun-based homicides were at 66 percent in the same states, which was almost equal to the 65 percent late registered in 1991 (Cook, 2000). The evidence therefore suggests that there lacks a correlation between the number of declined weapon purchase requests and the number of gun-based homicides. This is to mean that the Brady Act failed.


In view of the findings noted above, this study recommends that though there could be some element of truth in the effectiveness of the Brady Act, the governments should consider some of the other factors affecting and contributing to increased rates of homicides and suicides. This recommendation is based on the fact that there are other possible means of committing either suicide or homicide. Such considerations could include factors such as economic stability of the vulnerable groups as well as ensuring that mental illnesses receive the necessary medical attention.

This study also recommends that though there is no quantifiable data to suggest that the Brady Act was effective in reducing the number of homicides and suicides, the law should remain in place, since it has been established that the screening has significantly reduced the sale of weapons to people who were under felony indictment or had been convicted of a felony. This study however suggests that this can only be the case if regulations are put in place for the secondary gun market too.


Brigham, J. (2003). Lethal Means restrictions: Its Value and Its Problems. Web.

Cook, P.C. (2000). Has the Brady Act been Successful? Web.

Kapusta, N.D., Etzersdorfer, E, Krall, C & Sonneck (2007). Firearm legislation reform in the European Union: Impact on firearm avail ability, firearm suicide and homicide rates in Austria. British Journal of Psychiatry 191(2):253-257.

Ludwig, J. & Cook, P.J. (2000). Homicide and suicide rates associated with implementation of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. Journal of the American Medical Association 284 (5): 585-591. Web.

Manson, D.A., Gilliard, D. K. & Lauver, G. (1999). Presale Handgun Checks, the Brady Interim Period, 1994-98. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin NCJ 175034:1-11.

Price, M. & Norris, D.M. (2008). National Instant Criminal Background check improvement Act: Implications for persons with Mental Illness. The Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 36(1): 123-128.

Price, W.H. & Whatmore, P. B. (1967). Behavior disorders and pattern of crime among XYY males identified at a maximum security hospital. British Medical Journal 1(5539): 533-536.

Stevens, J., Hasbrouck, L.M., Durant, T.M., Et al. (1999). Surveillance for Injuries and Violence among older adults. MMWR Morb Mortal Weekly Rep. 48 (2):27-50.

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