President Ronald Reagan, in office barely two months on March 30, 1981, stepped out of a doorway at the Washington Hilton Hotel after giving a luncheon speech. Waiting for him with a .22-caliber pistol was a mentally ill 25-year-old man named John W. Hinckley Jr.
Hinckley paid $29 for his pistol at a pawnshop in Dallas in October 1980. He falsified his address and used an expired Texas driver’s license.
As Reagan walked to his limousine, Hinckley fired a fusillade of bullets, which struck the president in the chest. Reagan barely survived; the bullet just missed his aorta. Along with a Secret Service agent and a Washington, D.C., police officer, Reagan’s press secretary, the lively and personable James Brady, was shot in the head. Chilling photographs from the scene showed Brady on the ground with his face in a grate.
After months of arduous surgeries and rehabilitation, he survived, as did all the other victims. Brady was partially paralyzed and mostly used a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. Brady died Monday at age 73.
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Along with his wife, Sarah, Brady is best known for his advocacy of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, also known as the Brady Bill. It called for a five-day waiting period, which later transitioned to instant computerized background checks of handgun purchasers. Had Hinckley been subject to the check included in the law, Brady might not have had to endure the life-altering shooting and 33 years of debility and pain.
Sarah Brady served as chair of the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, and the couple worked tirelessly to stop the carnage wrought by illegal use of these weapons.
In a nation where thousands of Americans are shot dead by criminals and deranged people with handguns, and thousands more are wounded and disfigured, Brady’s physical and political courage in helping to pass the law doubtlessly led to lives being saved. The Brady Bill was introduced in 1987; it took six years and a fight against the National Rifle Association to pass the law. The bill implemented a few common-sense restrictions on handgun purchases – not the wholesale ban that many zealots would have us believe exists.
Reagan said the law “can’t help but stop thousands of illegal handgun purchases.” But in 2007, when a former mental hospital patient gunned down 32 people at Virginia Tech, it was clear a loophole existed in the Brady Bill. The gunman had obtained his weapons legally. Brady went to work again, and he got that loophole closed in 2008 when President George W. Bush signed into law a provision that stopped people with mental illness from obtaining guns.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton awarded Brady the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In an appearance on Capitol Hill in 2011 commemorating the 30th anniversary of the shooting, Brady spoke haltingly. The wound had profoundly affected the speech center of his brain. But he managed to say two words: “Fight fiercely.”
More than 20 years after the passage of the Brady Bill – even after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and dozens of school shootings – there has been little in national gun control legislation passed since. In California, and in some other states, however, Brady’s legacy is alive. Under his name, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has provided reasoned and thoughtful advocacy for gun safety.
Brady became the ultimate poignant personification of the gun control movement in the U.S. Perhaps only Giffords can do that now. That Brady and Giffords had to be grievously wounded to bring attention to the violence wrought by the ease of obtaining guns is tragic. That his horrible injuries led to laws that have stopped the same thing from happening to other Americans meant it was a tragedy that Brady could live with.