The 1994 Brady law, which required
handgun sellers to make background checks and institute waiting
periods for buyers, has had little impact on U.S. homicide and
suicide rates, researchers said Tuesday.
However, the waiting period that has since been phased out
did play a role in reducing the suicide rate for older
Americans, a segment of the adult population more prone to
suicide but less likely to own guns, their report said.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, named for former
presidential press secretary James Brady, established a national
system of background checks and waiting periods for those buying
handguns from federally licensed firearms dealers. The law was
named for former presidential press secretary James Brady, who
was wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President
President Clinton has frequently hailed the law for blocking
thousands of convicted felons from acquiring weapons that might
have been used to commit new crimes.
Researchers Jens Ludwig of Georgetown University and Philip
Cook of Duke University compared data on homicide and suicide
rates from 1985 through 1997, examining shifts since the Brady
law was enacted in 1994.
Eighteen U.S. states had similar gun control measures
already in place when the legislation was passed but the law
created new restrictions in 32 other states, which they
classified as “treatment states.”
“Our analyses provide no evidence that implementation of
the Brady Act was associated with a reduction in homicide
rates,” the researchers wrote in this week’s Journal of the
American Medical Association.
“In particular, we find no differences in homicide or
firearm homicide rates to adult victims in the 32 treatment
states directly subject to the Brady Act provisions compared
with the remaining control states,” they wrote.
The study took account of the decline in U.S. homicide and
suicide rates for victims of all ages before the law went into
The authors said the law may have had an untold impact on
the secondary market for guns—illegal sales of guns on the
black market or by unlicensed dealers.
According to the study, a significant fraction of guns used
in crimes originated in other states where they were sold
legally but later found their way into the hands of criminals.
“As Ludwig and Cook acknowledge, direct evidence of the
impact of the Brady Act on interstate firearms trafficking does
not exist. It is badly needed,” Richard Rosenfeld of the
University of Missouri-St. Louis wrote in an editorial
accompanying the study.
The Brady Act’s effect on suicide rates was somewhat
clearer, but its impact was limited to seniors in states where
regulations were stiffened by the law.
The study suggested the provision in the law requiring a
waiting period appeared to be a key factor in reducing suicides
among older people. But that provision was phased out in
December 1998, with gun dealers now conducting instant
background checks, so seniors’ suicide rates may have climbed
back up, they said.
The findings “suggest that the shift away from waiting
periods could increase the firearm suicide rate (and potentially
the overall suicide rate) among older U.S. citizens,” they
While background checks are effective in stopping handgun
sales to convicted felons, fewer sales are blocked to buyers
with a history of mental illness who might have a predisposition
to suicide, Rosenfeld wrote in his editorial.
Despite the study’s limitations and the need for more
research, Rosenfeld said “current knowledge does not warrant
relaxing or abandoning any of the Brady Act-type restrictions on