The rising tide of violence spawned by guns and drugs, plus the stark image of James S. Brady, convinced House members that the time had come to pass a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases.
The debate over the bill that bears Brady's name was studded with expressions of concern Wednesday about the high level of handgun violence and deaths nationwide.House members also took potshots at the National Rifle Association, which long has held sway over Congress when gun-control legislation comes up for a vote.
The NRA, which worked successfully to defeat the Brady bill three years ago, became an issue itself this time around by staging an advertising and lobbying blitz that some members called heavy-handed.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who has survived NRA attacks for his advocacy of the waiting period, said the gun lobby overplayed its hand.
Another thing that helped turn the tide was a gain of 15 votes by Democrats since 1988 plus vote switches by a number of House members in both parties who previously had opposed gun control.
"I think many people are concerned about the level of violence and the involvement of people in that violence," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., who has opposed the bill and expresses doubt about its value.
Rep. Butler Derrick, D-S.C., is a former opponent of gun control who told colleagues he has "been around guns all my life."
But Derrick said he now favors the Brady bill because "every night in the streets and the highways and byways of America, it's the OK Corral, the Valentine's Day massacre."
The waiting period was "a small price to pay for the possibility of saving lives."
The Brady bill was scuttled by 46 votes in 1988 when Congress voted instead to study alternatives to the waiting period. While the NRA won three years ago, the resulting study did not help its case.
Rep. Mike Andrews, D-Texas, who voted to conduct the study, said he was dismayed by the conclusion that it would take years to implement the plan favored by the NRA.
That plan would require gun dealers to call a nationwide hotline to check computerized criminal records to determine if a customer was a convicted felon.
The Justice Department, which conducted the study, concluded that it would take years and millions of dollars to update and automate criminal records from 50 states.
Then there was the simple but powerful emotional appeal of Jim Brady, the former White House press secretary who was left disabled by a head wound when he was shot in 1981 by a gunman who tried to kill President Ronald Reagan.
Brady and his wife, Sarah, who is chairwoman of Handgun Control Inc., have appeared at virtually every congressional hearing since the bill was first introduced in 1986.
Brady, who is confined to a wheelchair, was in the gallery Wednesday night when Congress voted 239-186 to pass the bill.
"When Jim rolled into members' offices, they looked truth in the face," Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters after the vote.
"We had everything on our side, including law enforcement, and Ronald Reagan certainly helped," Sarah Brady said.
Reagan's recent endorsement of the measure he opposed as president, plus the support of former presidents Carter, Ford and Nixon, helped give the bill political momentum this spring.
It also gave President Bush political cover to back off his absolute threat to veto the bill. Now the president says he won't sign the Brady bill unless it is accompanied by an anti-crime bill to his liking.