President Clinton signed the Brady handgun control legislation Tuesday, calling it "one step in taking our streets back" and declaring that the nation now must impose additional limits on the use of firearms.
"I ask you to think about what this means and what we can all do to keep this going," Clinton told several hundred supporters of the legislation in an emotional East Room ceremony. "We cannot stop here."
As Clinton signed the bill, he stood flanked by former White House Press Secretary James S. Brady, the man for whom the bill was named, and Brady's wife, Sarah. Brady was severely wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan. The legislation requires a five-day waiting period and background check on handgun buyers. It takes effect in 90 days.
Attended by lawmakers, big-city mayors and handgun victims, the ceremony was in effect a kickoff rally for the next phase of the gun control movement. It came at a moment of sharply rising public concern about crime that already has spurred the House and Senate to pass other anti-crime bills. Those measures are to be reconciled by a conference committee after a new congressional session begins in January.
Clinton used the occasion to lobby Congress to adopt provisions of those unexpectedly strong bills. He noted that they would add 100,000 police to the streets, ban several kinds of assault weapons, limit possession of guns by minors, take steps to keep guns out of schools and reform federal gun dealer licensing rules.
The White House, keenly aware of public anxieties about violence, is also developing other anti-crime initiatives.
Clinton, choked up by emotion at one point, related how an Arkansas friend had once unwittingly sold a firearm to a mental patient, only to learn that the man had killed six people within the next 12 hours.
"My friend is not over it to this day," Clinton said. "Don't tell me this bill will not make a difference. That is not true. That is not true."
Clinton said the Brady bill finally passed "because grass-roots 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. Americans are finally fed up with violence that cuts down another citizen with gunfire every 20 minutes."
To better dramatize its case, the White House offered the testimony of a young Atlanta woman, Melanie Musick, whose husband was killed by a deranged man while he was sitting in a shopping mall's food court. The shooter had been unable to buy a gun in Atlanta because of its waiting period but had gone to the adjoining county to purchase a firearm.
"The Brady bill could have saved my husband's life," Musick said.
Brady described adoption of the law as "the end of unchecked madness and the commencement of a heartfelt crusade for a safer and saner country." His wife thanked Reagan, who publicly announced his support of the measure in 1991 and in so doing, she said, made it a "badge of honor" for Republicans to support the measure.
Clinton argued that gun control measures were not an attempt, as opponents maintain, to threaten beloved American hunting traditions that he himself followed as a youth.
Recalling that he had shot at tin cans with a .22-caliber rifle, Clinton asked: "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."
The President praised some who have tried to steer young people away from the use of firearms. He cited the work of Dave Plaza, a former gang member from Norwalk, Calif., who coordinates an organization called Gang Alternative Programs, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Passage of the bill marked the first major gun control success since 1968, when Congress--in the aftermath of the assassinations of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.--banned mail-order purchases of rifles, shotguns, handguns and ammunition, and curbed out-of-state buying of those firearms.