6 Tragedies That Sparked Legislation

Matt Vasilogambros
National Journal

When tragedy strikes, Americans react with grief, anger, hope, and sometimes legislation.

Congress has often responded to an individual event by passing legislation that lawmakers felt either could have prevented or will prevent future death and destruction. Reactionary legislation, if you will.

While many questions remain about the deadly bombings in Boston, there’s a chance that a new law might come out of the incident. Even today, lawmakers are debating a series of gun-safety bills that were written in the aftermath of an elementary-school shooting in Connecticut that killed 20 children. Although parts of this package of bills don’t have a strong chance of passage, whether it’s an assault-rifle ban or increased background checks for gun purchases, some lawmakers still hope that elements of gun control can come from the tragic event in Newtown last December.

Opponents of the legislation have argued that just because there was a tragic event involving these weapons, it doesn’t mean Congress should react with legislation. These battles are not unfamiliar for Congress following tragic events that take human life. Here are just a few laws that came into being because of a tragedy:

Sept. 11 Terrorist Attacks

Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which claimed the lives of almost 3,000 people, Congress acted swiftly with the passage of two key pieces of legislation that were instrumental to the Bush administration’s so-called war on terrorism.  Just over a month after the attacks, President Bush signed the Patriot Act, giving the federal government greater tools to monitor the activities of suspected terrorists, whether through wiretapping, regulating financial transactions, or other intelligence-gathering techniques. A year later, Bush signed the Homeland Security Act, creating the Department of Homeland Security. The department took over several offices and organization within the federal government that combat terrorism, including the U.S. Secret Service, the Coast Guard and the Customs Service.

Death of Basketball Star Len Bias 

Just two weeks after being selected in the NBA’s first round by the Boston Celtics in 1986, University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias overdosed on cocaine and died. His death sent shockwaves throughout the basketball world and put pressure on lawmakers to act on toughening drug laws. Worried that Democrats would be viewed as weak on crime, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who represented the Boston area, steamrolled a new piece of legislation that put stiffer penalties on existing drug laws. One of the lasting effects of the Anti-Drug Act of 1986, also called the “Len Bias Law,” was to enact mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine possession, which disproportionately hurt black Americans. President Obama signed a law in 2010 correcting this provision.

Oklahoma City Bombing 

A year after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, where 168 people died, President Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The law tightened many habeas corpus laws, limiting the number of times someone convicted of a crime could appeal their cases. Opponents to the legislation said it could lead to innocent people being killed without proper appeals.

Assassination Attempt on Ronald Reagan 

(AP Photo/White House, Michael Evans)

In an assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981, his press secretary, Jim Brady, was shot and paralyzed. Over the next decade, Brady fought to enact stricter gun laws in the U.S. In 1994, President Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which instituted federal background checks for firearm purchases. Clinton also signed a 10-year federal assault-rifle ban that year. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is still a major player in today’s gun-control debates.

Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Assassinations 

Two months after civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenn., Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June 1968. Their deaths illustrated the turbulence of the 1960s, which had already seen civil-rights activist Malcolm X and President Kennedy killed. In response to the shootings in 1968, Congress passed the Gun Control Act regulating interstate commerce of firearms. The bill was introduced as part of President Johnson’s “Great Society” proposals before the two leaders’ deaths and had stalled in Congress. However, following their deaths, the House and Senate passed the bill, and it was signed into law by Johnson.

The Great Mississippi Flood

Still the most destructive river flood in U.S. history, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 inspired Congress to pass the Flood Control Act of 1928, which authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to construct a system of levees along the river. Additionally, floodways were built to divert waters away from the river and its tributaries. The law also allowed the Army Corps of Engineers to construct similar projects along the Sacramento River in California. Nearly 250 people were killed in the flood that struck Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

All photos by the Associated Press

CLARIFICATION: The story has been updated to clarify that nearly 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks, and not all were Americans.