Aug. 1, 2000 -- Jim Brady, one of the driving forces behind the advocacy group Handgun Control Inc., used to be former President Ronald Reagan's press secretary. One day, instead of fielding questions from the press, Brady took a bullet meant for Reagan, and his life was changed forever.
Now, from the confines of his wheelchair, Brady, who still has problems with speech and muscle control, and his wife campaign constantly for effective gun legislation. However, a study in the current issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that the gun control bill named for Brady has not been effective in reducing either murders or suicides by handguns.
"The most important finding of our study is [the one] suggesting that the Brady Act doesn't reduce gun violence," Philip Cook, PhD, tells WebMD. "This act only controls guns sold through licensed firearms dealers, so it doesn't address what is likely the most important source of guns for criminals, and that is other criminals or illegal interstate trafficking. Effective control will require control of this 30% to 40% of gun sales." Cook is professor of public policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Cook and colleague Jens Ludwig studied statistics related to homicides and suicides from the National Center for Health Statistics for the period 1985 to 1997. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was put into place in 1994 in those states lacking handgun control measures at that time. Cook and Ludwig compared handgun-related homicide and suicide rates in those states where the Brady Act was implemented and in those where it wasn't.
Analysis of this time period indicates that murder and suicide rates in the U.S. began to decline before the act went into effect in 1994. But the authors found that there was no difference in overall suicide and homicide rates between the states that already had gun control laws and those where the Brady Act was put into action.
The only thing that did seem to improve was that in states required to implement the act, suicide rates for persons aged 55 years and older went down. The authors write that they think this is because people get a chance to pause and think because of the compulsory waiting period required by the law.
Richard Rosenfeld, PhD, of the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, writes in an editorial accompanying the study that the Brady Act may have had a positive impact on reduction of gun violence, but "guns used in homicide and other crimes tend to come from the 'secondary' firearms market, consisting of legal and illegal transfers from unlicensed sources ... direct evidence of the impact of the Brady Act on interstate firearms trafficking does not exist. It is badly needed."
According to Jon Vernick, JD, MPH, assistant professor and associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, both the study and the law come up short. "We probably shouldn't be terribly surprised that what is really a modest intervention appears to have had a modest impact." He feels that the study did not evaluate the impact the law may have had on reducing the interstate trafficking of guns.
Vernick tells WebMD, "Advocacy groups have much more stringent guidelines in mind to reduce gun violence than the Brady Act. These include licensing and regulation of all gun owners, comprehensive consumer product safety legislation related to guns, and a requirement that all gun sales must be regulated. One of our own studies suggests that banning a certain type of handgun in Maryland known as a 'Saturday-night special' has reduced the use of these guns by criminals. Certainly, this suggests that banning certain types of handguns may be part of a comprehensive strategy as well."
Cook and Ludwig have a book coming out this fall, in which they estimate the cost of gun violence to the U.S. to be more than $100 billion per year. "We use not just the traditional costs such as medical costs and lost productivity, but the cost of avoidance strategies, such as moving to the suburbs, that many people are already using. This is a very big problem that is affecting us all. We must find a more efficient way to deal with it," Cook says.