Clinton signs gun control bill as Brady watches



WASHINGTON (AP)—As James Brady turned in his wheelchair to watch, President Clinton signed into law the most sweeping handgun control bill in a quarter century Tuesday. ‘‘Americans are finally fed up with violence,’‘ the president declared.

Cheers and applause erupted in the East Room as Clinton signed the long-fought bill before an audience of law enforcement officials, mayors, governors, members of Congress, and families who have lost relatives to gun violence.

The new law will require a five-day waiting period and background check on handgun buyers when it takes effect in 90 days. It was named for Brady, the White House press secretary who was gravely wounded and left disabled in the 1981 assassination attempt against then-President Reagan.

Reading slowly from notes as his wife, Sarah, held a microphone for him, Brady called the ceremony ‘‘the end of unchecked madness and the commencement of a heartfelt crusade for a safer and saner country.’‘

The emotion-filled ceremony marked the end of a nearly seven-year battle by the Bradys and gun-control advocates with the National Rifle Association and its congressional supporters. Every major law enforcement organization had endorsed the bill.

It was the first major gun bill since 1968 when Congress—in the aftermath of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.—banned mail-order purchases of rifles, shotguns, handguns and ammunition and curbed out-of-state buying of those firearms.

Clinton said the Brady bill finally passed ‘‘because grassroots America changed its mind and demanded that this Congress not leave here without doing something about this. And all the rest of us, even Jim and Sarah, did was to somehow light that spark that swept across the people of this country and proved once again that democracy can work.’‘

‘‘America won this battle,’‘ the president said. ‘‘Americans are finally fed up with violence that cuts down another citizen with gunfire every 20 minutes.’‘

However, Richard Gardiner, the NRA’s legislative counsel, said in a telephone interview, ‘‘The bill will not have the slightest impact on violent crime.’‘ He said that less than 1 percent of people who attempt to buy guns from licensed dealers have criminal records. ‘‘If you want to stop crime,’‘ Gardiner said, ‘‘you have to go after the criminals.’‘

Clinton has been speaking with increasing passion about violence and crime in recent weeks. Aides say the subject deeply troubles him and he will devote a lot of attention to it during December.

A major anti-crime bill, to put 100,000 more police on the streets and ban several assault-style weapons, is expected to be high on the agenda for Clinton and Congress next year. It’s a politically popular issue, since polls show that violence-weary Americans say crime is their top fear.

Trying to debunk a central argument against gun control, Clinton said that opponents have successfully portrayed gun restrictions as an impingement on the American culture of hunting and fishing.

‘‘We have taken this important part of the life of millions of Americans and turned it into an instrument of maintaining madness,’‘ the president said.

‘‘It is crazy,’‘ Clinton said, slapping the lectern to emphasize his point. ‘‘Would I let anybody change that life in America? Not on your life. Has that got anything to do with the Brady bill or assault weapons or whether the police have to go out on the street confronting teen-agers who are better armed than they are? Of course not.’‘

He said that signing the Brady bill was ‘‘step one in taking our streets back, taking our children back, reclaiming our families and our future.’‘

Critics contend the Brady bill will have a limited effect because criminals will simply buy their weapons in illicit markets.

But Clinton and Sarah Brady both took note of a Washington Post story that said background checks and waiting periods in California, Florida, Virginia and Maryland have blocked more than 47,000 attempted gun purchases by people who at the time were banned from buying firearms. At least 25 states have Brady-like restrictions on handgun sales.

‘‘Don’t tell me this bill won’t make a difference,’‘ Clinton said. ‘‘It is not true.’‘ He said more than 150,000 people have been killed by handguns since the Bradys began their crusade.

The audience listened intently as Melanie Musick of Atlanta spoke in a shaky voice about the 1990 murder of her husband by a man who had purchased a gun after leaving a mental institution.

‘‘The Brady bill could have saved my husband’s life if there had just been a waiting period and a background check,’‘ she said. ‘‘I can’t bring my husband back but I do know that the Brady bill is going to save other people’s lives.’‘

Brady, who has used a wheelchair since his shooting, told the audience, ‘‘Twelve years ago my life was changed forever by a disturbed young man with a gun. Until that time, I had not thought about gun control or the need for gun control. Maybe if I had done so, I wouldn’t be stuck with these damn wheels.’‘

Attorney General Janet Reno said that Sarah Brady had pledged not to stop with the Brady bill. She quoted Mrs. Brady as saying, ‘‘We’re going to get the ban on assault weapons passed.’‘