Prom­i­nent gun con­trol ad­vo­cate dies

SARAH BRADY, 1942 - 2015

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Elaine Woo elaine.woo@la­times.com

Sarah Brady, widow of Rea­gan Press Sec­re­tary James Brady, has died at 73.

Sarah Brady, widow of James Brady, who was wounded in the at­tack on Pres­i­dent Rea­gan, has died at 73.

Af­ter the 1981 as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan, nearly ev­ery­one knew that White House spokesman James Brady had been shot in the head and par­tially par­a­lyzed in the at­tack by a men­tally de­ranged as­sailant, John W. Hinckley Jr.

But that wasn’t why his wife, Sarah, be­came a war­rior in a daunt­ing po­lit­i­cal fight.

Dur­ing a visit to her hus­band’s home­town in Illi­nois in the sum­mer of 1985, a friend gave Brady and her then-6-year-old son, Scott, a ride in his truck. On the seat Scott found what he thought was a toy gun and waved it around.

“Ex­cept it wasn’t a toy gun,” Brady grimly re­called.

She care­fully re­moved from his hand a loaded .22-cal­iber pis­tol, a cheap Satur­day night spe­cial much like the one Hinckley had used to shoot her hus­band. Her friend was blasé about the in­ci­dent and said he needed the gun for pro­tec­tion, but Brady was en­raged by his care­less­ness.

That evening, she called the Na­tional Ri­fle Assn. “Hi, you don’t know me,” she told the per­son at the other end of the line, “but my name’s Sarah Brady and I’m go­ing to make it my life’s am­bi­tion to put you out of busi­ness.”

Brady, who be­came the na­tion’s most prom­i­nent ci­ti­zens’ ad­vo­cate for tighter hand­gun reg­u­la­tion and suc­cess­fully pushed for pas­sage of a his­toric bill aimed at keep­ing guns away from un­qual­i­fied buy­ers, died Fri­day at a re­tire­ment home in Alexan­dria, Va., af­ter a bout of pneu­mo­nia, her fam­ily said in a state­ment. She was 73.

A self-pro­fessed cig­a­rette ad­dict, she had been di­ag­nosed with ad­vanced lung can­cer in early 2000. She un­der­went sev­eral rounds of chemo­ther­apy, ra­di­a­tion and ex­per­i­men­tal treat­ments and de­fied the prog­no­sis that had given her no more than a 30% chance of sur­viv­ing five years.

Brady was chair­woman of the Brady Cam­paign to Prevent Gun Vi­o­lence (formerly Hand­gun Con­trol Inc.), the na­tion’s largest ci­ti­zens’ lobby for tougher hand­gun reg­u­la­tion.

Her hus­band be­came a po­tent sym­bol of the strug­gle and was by her side in 1993 when Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton signed the Brady Hand­gun Vi­o­lence Pre­ven­tion Act, which im­posed back­ground checks and a seven-day wait­ing pe­riod on prospec­tive gun buy­ers.

The most sig­nif­i­cant change in fed­eral firearms reg­u­la­tion in a gen­er­a­tion, the Brady law has blocked more than 2 mil­lion sales to felons and oth­ers who do not meet the re­quire­ments of gun own­er­ship, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Bureau of Jus­tice Statis­tics.

The im­pact of the changes on gun crime, how­ever, is harder to gauge. The law only re­stricts sales by li­censed firearms deal­ers and not sec­ondary sales by in­di­vid­u­als on­line or at gun shows, the route re­searchers say is fa­vored by many crim­i­nals seek­ing firearms. Ef­forts in Wash­ing­ton to ex­pand the back­ground checks have re­peat­edly failed.

The NRA, which bat­tled the Brady bill for years, found its match in the blunt and ir­rev­er­ent for­mer school­teacher whose life was trans­formed by tragedy.

“Be­fore Sarah Brady it’s safe to say that the Na­tional Ri­fle Assn. ran this town,” Sen. Ed­ward M. “Ted” Kennedy (D-Mass.) once said. He called her ef­forts to change the na­tion’s gun laws “an ex­tra­or­di­nary na­tional service.”

“The gun lobby likes to say that Jim and I are try­ing to take guns away from hunters and sports­men,” Brady said some years ago. “The gun lobby is wrong. To the hunters and sports­men of Amer­ica, we say: Keep your guns. But just give us the laws that we need to keep guns out of the hands of crim­i­nals and out of the hands of chil­dren.”

Those pleas were unimag­ined in Brady’s life on March 30, 1981.

On that rainy Mon­day in Wash­ing­ton, Jim Brady was in Rea­gan’s en­tourage as the pres­i­dent made a mid­day speech at the Wash­ing­ton Hil­ton. Sarah Brady was at home with their then-2-year-old son.

Around 2 p.m., she was watch­ing a fa­vorite soap opera when a bul­letin broke in: Shots had been fired at the pres­i­dent.

Be­fore she could hear the rest of the news, her phone rang. A friend who had heard a fuller re­port was cry­ing and of­fer­ing to come stay with Scott. Brady was con­fused: Why would her friend want to take care of Scott?

Then it hit her: Jim was hurt, too.

Soon she was stand­ing on the side­walk out­side their home, wait­ing for a White House car to speed her to Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal. But be­fore she left, she saw her hus­band on tele­vi­sion, face down on the pave­ment in a grow­ing pool of blood.

Of the six shots Hinckley fired, four had struck tar­gets. One hit Rea­gan in the chest, pierc­ing his lung and caus­ing mas­sive in­ter­nal bleed­ing. Also in­jured were a Se­cret Service agent and a Wash­ing­ton pa­trol­man.

Jim Brady was shot just above the left brow. The bul­let tore through his brain and lodged on the right side. At the hos­pi­tal, doc­tors saw gray mat­ter seep from the wound, a sign that his con­di­tion could be be­yond hope.

A neu­ro­sur­geon told Sarah Brady that only 1 in 10 sur­vived the surgery her hus­band needed to re­pair the dam­age to his brain.

Al­though his health was se­verely com­pro­mised, he lived 33 more years. Af­ter he died last year at age 73, the coroner ruled his death a homi­cide re­sult­ing from wounds sus­tained in the shoot­ing.

Sarah Brady learned about guns as a girl. Born Feb. 6, 1942, in Kirksville, Mo., and raised in Alexan­dria, Va., she saw her FBI agent fa­ther carry a .38 to work and some­times ac­com­pa­nied him to an FBI shoot­ing range. The men in her fam­ily all hunted for sport, and she knew how to shoot a Tommy gun.

“I grew up with a deep re­spect for guns,” she once told The Times. “I can still re­mem­ber my fa­ther say­ing … you pick up a gun only in the event that you’re pre­pared to shoot to kill.”

She dreamed of fol­low­ing her fa­ther’s path to the FBI but was dis­cour­aged by the lack of fe­male agents. At the Col­lege of Wil­liam and Mary in Wil­liams­burg, Va., she stud­ied to be­come a teacher but was politi­cized by the Viet­nam War and in 1968 went to work in­stead for the Re­pub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee in Wash­ing­ton.

She met her fu­ture hus­band in the late 1960s when he was run­ning cam­paigns in Illi­nois and she was a fi­nance li­ai­son for the Re­pub­li­can Party. She nick­named him Bear be­cause he was built like one. He called her Rac­coon be­cause of the cir­cles un­der her eyes when she was tired. They mar­ried in 1973 and Sarah Brady stopped work­ing five years later when they started a fam­ily.

Af­ter Rea­gan won the White House in 1980, the Bradys’ lives took a glam­orous turn, only to be shat­tered on the 70th day of his pres­i­dency.

The press sec­re­tary was hos­pi­tal­ized for nine months, nearly dy­ing sev­eral times from blood clots. He had to re­learn how to walk and speak, had se­vere short-term mem­ory prob­lems and howled or blanked out from pain. Brady de­voted her­self to his care while strug­gling to raise their son.

In June 1982, Hinckley was ac­quit­ted on grounds of in­san­ity and sent to a men­tal hos­pi­tal, where he re­mains.

That same year, Brady was con­tacted by the hand­gun-con­trol move­ment. Al­though she badly wanted to help, she turned down the re­quest, Brady bi­og­ra­pher Mol­lie Dick­en­son said, be­cause her ad­vo­cacy could “look bad for Jim,” who was still of­fi­cially the spokesman for a pro-NRA pres­i­dent.

She changed her mind af­ter the fright­en­ing in­ci­dent in the truck with her son. Back in Wash­ing­ton, she learned that the Sen­ate was pre­par­ing to vote on a bill that would neu­tral­ize the 1968 Gun Con­trol Act, passed af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tions of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The so-called McClureVolk­mer bill sought to weaken pro­vi­sions that pro­hib­ited mail-or­der gun sales, for­bade sales to felons and re­quired deal­ers to keep sales records.

Brady called Hand­gun Con­trol Inc.

She started a let­ter-writ­ing cam­paign on Capitol Hill, made tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances and gave speeches, lash­ing out at “the weak­lings in Con­gress … who don’t have the guts to stand up for what’s right.” De­spite her hard work, the McClure-Volk­mer bill passed and was signed by Rea­gan in 1986, but Brady’s ef­forts helped op­po­nents un­der­cut its most dam­ag­ing pro­vi­sions. By 1987 her face was on posters that said, “Help me fight the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion.” In 1989 she be­came vice chair of Hand­gun Con­trol Inc. and Jim Brady, no longer on the White House pay­roll, joined the cam­paign. Two years later Sarah Brady be­came chair of the group’s sis­ter or­ga­ni­za­tion. Hand­gun Con­trol Inc. was re­named the Brady Cam­paign in 2001 in honor of the Bradys’ com­mit­ment to the cause.

Af­ter the bat­tle over the McClure-Volk­mer bill, she fo­cused on se­cur­ing pas­sage of the Brady bill. “Jim’s shoot­ing could have been pre­vented if leg­is­la­tion such as this had been in force,” she said, not­ing that no back­ground check had been per­formed on Hinckley, who had pur­chased his gun by giv­ing a false ad­dress.

Openly op­posed by the NRA, the bill was stuck in leg­isla­tive log­jams for sev­eral years. Brady pounded on con­gres­sional doors, of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by Jim Brady in a wheel­chair. By 1992, Rea­gan, then a for­mer pres­i­dent, had come out in fa­vor of the mea­sure, but his suc­ces­sor, Ge­orge H.W. Bush, threat­ened to veto it. So Sarah Brady en­dorsed Bush’s chal­lenger, Clin­ton, who vowed to sign the bill if Con­gress passed it.

By 1993, opin­ion polls showed that the bill had the sup­port of more than 90% of Amer­i­cans. It passed the Sen­ate on a voice vote, mak­ing it the first ma­jor gun-con­trol leg­is­la­tion passed by Con­gress in 25 years. Brady said Clin­ton’s sign­ing of the bill was “the proud­est mo­ment of our lives.”

She saw the law in ac­tion when, af­ter un­der­go­ing the re­quired checks, she pur­chased a hunt­ing ri­fle as a gift for her son in 2001. “It felt un­usual to be pack­ing that gun into my lit­tle car, but I have al­ways be­lieved in the abil­ity of law-abid­ing ci­ti­zens to own a gun,” she later told Reuters.

Brady con­sid­ered the day her hus­band was shot the most dif­fi­cult in her life, worse than her can­cer di­ag­no­sis. The shoot­ing was the first chap­ter of “A Good Fight,“the 2002 mem­oir she wrote af­ter the can­cer had spread to her lymph nodes.

A re­viewer de­scribed the book as a farewell let­ter from a dy­ing mother and wife, but when it was pub­lished she was in re­mis­sion — and, af­ter quit­ting twice, had started smok­ing again.

“I knew per­fectly well … that I was stupid enough to have smoked all this time and per­haps to have caused my own even­tual demise,” she wrote with­out guilt or self-pity. “I love life and I do not want to leave any of this be­hind.”

Brady is sur­vived by her son, James “Scott” Brady Jr.; a step­daugh­ter, Melissa “Missy” Brady Camins; and a brother, Wil­liam Kemp.

Getty Im­ages

Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Im­ages

A MIS­SION BORN OF TRAGEDY Sarah Brady, with her hus­band, Jim, in 2011, made it her mis­sion to push for tighter gun reg­u­la­tions. Her hus­band, who was shot and par­tially par­a­lyzed dur­ing the 1981 as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan, be­came a po­tent sym­bol of her fight.

Associated Press

BRADY HAND­GUN VI­O­LENCE PRE­VEN­TION ACT OF 1993 Sarah Brady, right, said Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s sign­ing of the bill was “the proud­est mo­ment of our lives.” From left, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, Clin­ton, Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore and Jim Brady.

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