The Jan. 8, 2011, assassination attempt on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., reignited America’s gun control debate. Within days of the incident, in which six people were killed, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old child, members of Congress from either side of the aisle had proposed measures that would further regulate gun ownership.
While leading Republicans, who controlled the House of Representatives at the time of the shooting, quickly denounced the idea of restricting gun rights as a knee-jerk reaction, many of America’s most impactful gun control laws have resulted from high-profile political mass shootings.
National Firearms Act of 1934
It was, in fact, a prolific mass murder that brought about the very idea of gun control in America. The National Firearms Act of 1934, which effectively banned private ownership of machine guns and other “gangster” weapons, was the first federal gun control law with long-lasting consequences. It was also a result of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. Americans had already grown weary of gang violence perpetrated by the likes of Al Capone and Bugs Moran. But the Feb. 14, 1929, incident seemed to be a tipping point.
Four years later, an assassination attempt on president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt left Chicago mayor Anton Cermak mortally wounded. Together, the two high-profile shootings helped pave the way to the National Firearms Act.
Gun Control Act of 1968
Thirty-four years after President Roosevelt signed the National Firearms Act into law, another major piece of gun control legislation made it to the president’s desk despite protests from many gun rights advocates.
If not for the political assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Sen. Bobby Kennedy, the Gun Control Act of 1968 might have never come to fruition. Instead, the legislation became law, clamping down on mail-order firearms sales and banning gun ownership by convicted felons and certain other individuals.
While it was a long time in coming, 1993’s Brady Bill had roots in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The assassination attempt, coupled with the 1980 murder of Beatles front man John Lennon, gave rise to support for Handgun Control, Inc., known today as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
After her husband, Reagan press secretary John Brady, was wounded and partially paralyzed for life in the failed assassination attempt, Sarah Brady cast her support behind Handgun Control, Inc., and became the nation’s foremost spokesperson for stricter gun control laws.
The Brady Bill, with heavy backing from HCI, was first introduced in 1987. Perhaps ironically, given his conservative reputation, President Reagan supported the bill. But it wasn’t until the early days of the Bill Clinton administration that the bill finally passed, requiring background checks for every gun purchase.
Passage of the Brady Bill marked the start of the gun control lobby’s greatest hour in the nation’s capitol — and gun rights advocates’ biggest nightmare. With a sympathetic majority in Congress and an ally in the White House, the Brady Bill was soon followed by the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994 and the Gun Free School Zones Act in 1995.
It’s impossible to say whether those hotly-contested pieces of legislation would have ever made it to the president’s desk if not for the presence of Sarah Brady. But her presence as an influential figure in American gun politics from the 1980s through much of the 1990s was undeniable. If not for the attempt to assassinate Reagan, one of the staunchest gun control advocates of the 20th Century might never have emerged on the national stage.
A National Freshly Stunned
After that 1981 attempt on Reagan’s life, there was not another high-profile political shooting until the January 2011 incident in Tucson. The 1988 assassination of federal judge Richard J. Daronco and a rogue gunman’s harmless shots outside the White House in 1994 were the only political incidents of gun violence in the 20 years between the two high-profile mass shootings.
Within days of the shooting, however, three members of Congress had proposed new gun control measures. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a self-professed blue-collar conservative and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, proposed that persons be restricted from carrying firearms within 1,000 feet of federal officials at public events. Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., proposed closing the much-ballyhooed “gun show loophole,” which gun control advocates allege allows firearms purchasers to circumvent background check requirements. And Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., proposed a ban on high-capacity magazines, such as the one accused shooter Jared Loughner used in Tucson.