Nothing is simple in America when guns are the issue. It took until 1993 for this bill to become law — 12 years after John Hinckley Jr. shot Mr. Reagan and several others on a Washington sidewalk. Among the wounded was Mr. Brady, shot in the head. He survived, but was left permanently disabled. As he later said, “What I was, I will never be again.” He died at 73 in 2014, his death classified as a homicide even with the passage of 33 years.
Long before then, he and his wife, Sarah, who died at 73 in 2015, were viewed by many as the “first family” of firearms regulation. Their intention, they said, was simply to limit the mayhem. But they had to contend with N.R.A. slippery slopesters and their congressional allies who insisted that the Bradys’ true goal was arms confiscation, with measures like background checks merely a first step. The pro-gun side believed it was “better to prevent the first good step than having to fight over the last bad step,” Richard Feldman, a former N.R.A. lobbyist, told Retro Report.
That concern was always bogus, said Gail Hoffman, a former legislative director of Handgun Control Inc., a group that evolved into the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Confiscation, she said, was never on the agenda. “We were not gun grabbers,” she said, just advocates interested in “making sure that bad guys don’t get them.”
Any battle over guns can be epic. Even so, the pro-regulation forces could claim victory on occasion. The 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, as the law was formally called, was one such moment. So was a 1994 ban on many assault weapons. They included the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, a weapon of choice for rampaging killers, including the young man accused of killing four people and wounding four others this month at a Waffle House restaurant in Nashville.
Despite such laws, the nation continues to reel from one mass shooting after another. Since the assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy in 1968, more Americans have been killed by guns (at least 1.6 million victims of suicides or homicides) than have died in all of the country’s wars put together (about 1.4 million).
There was a time when the N.R.A., founded in 1871, focused principally on hunting, marksmanship and conservation, and was willing to compromise on gun legislation. But in the late 1970s, its moderate leadership fell to a cadre of absolutists opposed to any hint of regulation. That hard line is embodied now by the organization’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, who in the wake of the assault weapons law described federal officials charged with enforcing gun laws as “jackbooted government thugs.”
The road in recent years has been steeply uphill for gun control advocates. The assault weapons ban had a built-in sunset clause, and it expired in 2004. In 2005, President George W. Bush signed a law protecting firearms manufacturers, importers and dealers from lawsuits by victims of crimes involving guns. Three years later, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a de facto Washington ban on handguns in the home for self-defense ran afoul of the Second Amendment.
The power of the N.R.A., which claims about five million members, is unmistakable. In the 2016 presidential election, it reportedly spent more than $11 million promoting the candidacy of Donald J. Trump and another $19.7 million attacking Hillary Clinton. After every mass killing, it has gone on a war footing, typically warning that its enemies would use the latest horror to pursue their supposed goal of rounding up all guns. Responding to that cry, many people have rushed out to arm themselves more thoroughly than ever. America has about as many guns as it has Americans.
Yet polls show that people in this country overwhelmingly favor measures like universal background checks and tighter rules that keep weapons out of the hands of the mentally unstable and the criminally menacing. And cracks are beginning to show in the N.R.A. armor, evidenced by widespread support for the Parkland students and the millions of others who have marched to demand that federal lawmakers finally do something to stem the violence.
How sustained this nascent movement will be remains to be seen. The long slog from the Brady shooting to the Brady Bill showed that any attempt at gun regulation is a marathon, not a sprint. But even in states that are politically as red as a barn door, some Democratic congressional candidates in the approaching midterm elections feel comfortable openly defying the N.R.A. and its demand for heel-clicking loyalty from elected officials.
Not all gun owners oppose every form of regulation. In Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, senses a mood shift post-Parkland. “We’ve hit a moment in time,” he said recently, “where the N.R.A. is denigrating a whole lot of responsible gun owners, so it’s not surprising that folks finally say, ‘Enough’s enough — they don’t represent me, and they don’t represent either the mainstream of America or the mainstream of firearm owners.’”