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Printz v. United States

John Hinckley Helps Write The Brady Bill

On 30 March 1981, a young man named John Hinckley--who later claimed he was inspired by the movie Taxi Driver and a desire to impress its young star, actress Jodie Foster--fired shots at President Ronald Reagan. Wounded in the shooting were the president, a secret service agent, and White House Press Secretary James Brady. President Reagan, who had been in office only two months, would recover from his wounds; Brady, on the other hand, would be paralyzed for life. The next month, a Turkish youth fired on the Pope, but did not kill him; but the soldiers who shot Egyptian President and Nobel laureate Anwar Sadat in October succeeded in their mission. Around the world, it seemed that a new age of assassination had come about, rivaling the spate of shootings in the 1960s that killed President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby, as well as civil rights leader Martin Luther King and his colleague Malcolm X.

Many in the United States believed that domestic violence could be curtailed through revisions to the Second Amendment, which grants citizens the right to keep and bear arms. Out of that earlier era of assassinations had come the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968, which among other things forbid arms sales to anyone under the age of 21 and prevented the transfer of a firearm to a convicted felon or a fugitive from justice. While most of these provisions seemed reasonable, conservatives feared that the true aim of anti-gun foes was a revocation of Second-Amendment rights, and the polity divided into two hostile camps on the gun control issue. In James Brady and his wife Sarah, whose lives had been forever altered for the worse by a handgun, gun-control advocates gained a valuable ally: a former aide to a conservative president who happened to be an advocate of gun control. Hence when in 1993 Congress passed a bill amending the GCA, it was called the Brady Act.

The Brady Act contained numerous provisions, but most significant for the purposes of Printz v. United States were those relating to background checks. The act authorized the attorney general of the United States to put in place a computerized instant background check system by 30 November 1998; and in the meantime, it established certain interim provisions. Under these provisions, firearm dealers desiring to sell a handgun must first receive from the person buying it a statement called the Brady Form. The Brady Form contains the transferee's name, address, date of birth, and a sworn statement that the transferee is not among the class of prohibited purchasers such as felons and fugitives. Second, the dealer must verify the identity of the buyer by examining an identification document. Third, he must provide the CLEO of the prospective buyer's home jurisdiction with a copy of the completed Brady Form. Unless the CLEO earlier notifies the dealer that he has no reason to believe the transaction is illegal, the dealer has to wait five business days before concluding the sale. The law thus made it incumbent on CLEOs to "make a reasonable effort to ascertain within 5 business days whether receipt or possession would be in violation of the law, including research in whatever State and local record keeping systems are available and in a national system designated by the Attorney General." The interim provisions contained other stipulations, including an order that a CLEO should be able to present a rejected gun-buyer with written reasons for the denial and an order that the CLEO destroy Brady Forms after a certain period of time.

Sheriffs Jay Printz of Ravalli County, Montana, and Richard Mack of Graham County, Arizona, filed separate actions challenging the constitutionality of these interim provisions, the fulfillment of which would place an enormous extra burden on their schedules. In both cases, the district court ruled that the Brady Act's interim provision requiring CLEOs to perform background checks was unconstitutional, but held that this could be separated from the rest of the act, leaving a system of voluntarily conducted background checks in place. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed by a divided vote, finding that none of the Brady Act's interim provisions were unconstitutional.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1995 to PresentPrintz v. United States - Significance, John Hinckley Helps Write The Brady Bill, The Majority Takes Its Cue From History