During his speech Tuesday to roll out a series of executive actions geared toward curbing gun violence, President Obama quoted an unlikely source: The late conservative icon, President Ronald Reagan, who indeed spoke out for a sweeping gun measure nearly 25 years ago.
“As Ronald Reagan once said, if mandatory background checks could save more lives, ‘it would be well worth making it the law of the land,'” Obama said. “The bill before Congress three years ago met that test. Unfortunately, too many senators failed theirs.”
Obama was quoting a guest column that Reagan wrote for The New York Times in 1991, endorsing the Brady Bill. Named in honor of Reagan’s former press secretary James Brady, who was seriously injured and left permanently disabled by an assassination attempt upon Reagan’s life by a deranged gunman in March 1981, the bill eventually passed and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Brady became a champion of gun control, heading up the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, before he ultimately passed away in 2014 at the age of 73.
In that piece, Reagan declared the need for better enforcement of background checks:
While there has been a Federal law on the books for more than 20 years that prohibits the sale of firearms to felons, fugitives, drug addicts and the mentally ill, it has no enforcement mechanism and basically works on the honor system, with the purchaser filling out a statement that the gun dealer sticks in a drawer.
Reagan also spoke up for a simple idea: That government has to do something about violence.
Every year, an average of 9,200 Americans are murdered by handguns, according to Department of Justice statistics. This does not include suicides or the tens of thousands of robberies, rapes and assaults committed with handguns.
This level of violence must be stopped. Sarah and Jim Brady are working hard to do that, and I say more power to them. If the passage of the Brady bill were to result in a reduction of only 10 or 15 percent of those numbers (and it could be a good deal greater), it would be well worth making it the law of the land.
To update those numbers just slightly: In 2014, the most recent year for statistics complied by the FBI, there were 5,562 murders with handguns — certainly a positive development, and also part of an overall decrease in violent crime that has been going on for the last 20 years.
But as President Obama pointed out, even the background check system that passed in the Brady Act still has holes in it. And it is those holes that he is trying to seal up using his executive authority.
President Ronald Reagan at his desk in the Oval Office, Washington, D.C., via Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress.