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Has the Brady Act been Successful?

The following article appeared on the editorial page of the Charlotte Observer on Aug. 15.

Has the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act reduced the number of people who are killed by gunfire in America? Our recent study, published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests that the answer to this question is not as simple as either the opponents or advocates of gun control would like.

The "Brady Act," which went into effect in early 1994, required licensed gun dealers and law enforcement in 32 states to conduct background checks for handgun purchases, and to allow waiting periods of up to five business days for the transfer of these weapons. The remaining 18 states plus the District of Columbia already had sufficiently stringent regulations in place and were granted exemptions from the new requirements.

Public discussions about the effects of the Brady Act have typically focused on the large number of adults with felony convictions, histories of mental illness, or other disqualifying characteristics who are blocked from buying handguns from licensed gun dealers in the 32 Brady states (with a total of around 44,000 such denials in 1996 alone).

However, the number of denials doesn't tell us much about what is of primary importance - the number of gunshot injuries that are prevented.

If these handgun denials were successful in preventing violence-prone people from arming themselves, we would expect to see a larger reduction in gun crimes committed in the 32 Brady states compared with the non-Brady states. Disappointingly, our study did not find significant trend differences between the Brady and non-Brady states in the most reliably measured gun crime - homicide. Thus the direct effect on gun crime that advocates expected from denying disqualified adults in the Brady states does not reveal itself in our data.

Another way to measure the effects of the Brady Act is to focus on suicides, an important public health concern since more people die each year by gun suicides than gun homicides in the United States. We do find that the Brady states experienced a greater reduction than the non-Brady states in gun suicides to older people, who have the highest rates. While this drop was partially offset by an increase in non-gun suicides, our evidence suggests that the Brady Act has saved lives by reducing the overall suicide rate among older Americans. Interestingly, the effects of the Brady Act on suicide seem to be caused in large part by the act's original waiting period requirements, which were phased out in late 1998 as states moved to an "instant check" system.

What is one to conclude from all of this? Ignoring our findings on suicide, spokesmen for the National Rifle Association have asserted that our study is simply further evidence that gun control doesn't work. The NRA fails to mention that the requirements of the Brady Act only cover gun sales by licensed gun dealers, and exempt sales by non-dealers - the so-called secondary gun market, which accounts for 30 percent to 40 percent of all gun transfers in the United States every year and an even larger share of guns used in crime. This unregulated secondary gun market is a gaping loophole in the Brady Act.

On the other side, pro-control groups have challenged our conclusions, noting that the Brady Act may have affected gun crime in both the Brady and non-Brady states by disrupting the flow of guns from gun dealers into interstate trafficking and the secondary gun market.

While it is possible that the Brady Act has thus contributed to the nationwide reduction in gun violence, the evidence is sketchy at best. The fact is that homicide rates already started to decline in 1991, before the Brady Act became law. Various reasons have been offered for this decline ‚ more cops, more prisons, a better economy and an easing of the crack epidemic are all plausible explanations. Since non-gun homicides decreased by about the same proportion as gun homicides during the 1990s, the same factors that led to fewer murders without guns are presumably responsible for much of the reduction in gun murders as well. In any event, the percentage of homicides with guns was 65 percent in 1991 and a virtually identical 66 percent in 1997.

Our own view is that the Brady Act was a useful - but modest - first step reducing the availability of guns to high-risk groups such as teens and convicted felons. The Brady Act's apparent effect in reducing gun suicides is encouraging, and implies that lives were probably saved as a result of the waiting period that was required during the first four years of the legislation. But effective action to reduce gun crime may require extending the regulatory umbrella to include the secondary market.

Philip J. Cook is ITT / Terry Sanford distinguished professor of public policy at Duke. Jens Ludwig is assistant professor of public policy at Georgetown University.