Brady finds Gilchrest easy sell for gun bill Congressman says he supports waiting period.

April 17, 1991|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Evening Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- Slapping the side of his wheelchair, James Brady makes his point to U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland.

"I'm not up here trying to sell these," Brady says in Gilchrest's office. "I'm trying to get out of them."

What Brady is selling is handgun control.

Gilchrest, R-1st, would seem to be a tough sell. A first-term lawmaker from a largely rural district, he succeeded Democratic Rep. Roy P. Dyson, who opposed gun control legislation.

But Gilchrest has been leaning in favor of the bill, and yesterday he told the Bradys he was all for it.

"I do think this is a step in the right direction . . . [of] solving the problem of handgun violence," Gilchrest said.

Brady, President Reagan's press secretary, was shot in the head during an attempted assassination of Reagan in 1981. Unable to walk as a result of the wound, he has turned his disability into a potent lobbying tool in behalf of handgun control legislation.

The Brady bill, as it is called, would give local authorities up to seven days to do background checks on prospective handgun purchasers to screen out felons, drug abusers and the mentally ill, all of whom are barred from owning guns.

Maryland has such a law and would not be affected by the federal legislation.

With an important committee vote scheduled later this month, Brady and his wife, Sarah, are seeking support for the bill as assiduously as the National Rifle Association is trying to defeat it.

"You have done a tremendous job in raising the consciousness of America to this specific problem to the point where the public is thinking about it," Gilchrest told the Bradys.

The Bradys perhaps could have saved themselves the time. But their visit to Gilchrest was being filmed by a crew from the MacNeil-Lehrer news program, and the couple used the opportunity to spell out arguments for gun control.

While they spoke, actor Michael Gross, the father in the TV series "Family Ties," walked into Gilchrest's office and added his arguments for the bill.

Sarah Brady said half the states don't have a waiting-period law. She asserted that these states supply the "majority" of the "crime guns" that show up later in states with such laws.

"People know where these states are," chimed in her husband. "When they want to pick up a piece, they go right to those states."

The Bradys said they had no objection to the idea, embodied in legislation supported by the NRA, of establishing a computerized system for gun shops to make instantaneous background checks. But they said such a system is years away, a fact gun-control opponents concede.

Gross introduced himself as an NRA member who likes guns.

"But I'm here to say, as a person who enjoys guns, the NRA leadership is out of touch with membership," Gross said. "There are a lot of NRA members who say seven days is fine. You have to wait that long to get a Sears catalog."

The NRA, however, insists that waiting-period laws don't deter criminal possession or use of handguns. NRA spokesman Trey Hodgkins says it is a "lie" for the Bradys to suggest that such a law would have prevented John W. Hinckley Jr. from shooting Brady and Reagan.

Hinckley bought a handgun in Texas from a gun shop. Hodgkins says Hinckley had no record that would have made him ineligible to buy it had the Brady bill been in effect.

The NRA boasts its own stable of celebrities, such as Charlton Heston. But Hodgkins says the organization depends on its 2.6 million members and other gun owners to influence lawmakers.

The NRA backed Dyson last year. Gilchrest said he conferred with NRA officials in making up his mind on the Brady bill.

While Gilchrest said he doesn't believe the bill would stop illegal trafficking in guns, he believes it makes the public "think about the problem."

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