James Brady, Reagan’s press secretary, dies at 73

James Brady, who embarked on a personal crusade for stronger controls after his devastating wounding in attempt on Reagan's life, dies aged 73

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 9:24pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 August, 2014, 3:33am

James Brady, the affable, witty press secretary who survived a devastating head wound in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and undertook a personal crusade for gun control, has died. He was 73.

Brady, who spent much of the rest of his life in a wheelchair, died on Monday at a retirement community in Virginia, where he lived with his wife.

"We are heartbroken to share the news that our beloved Jim 'Bear' Brady has passed away after a series of health issues," Brady's family said in a statement. "His wife, Sarah; son, Scott, and daughter, Missy, are so thankful to have had the opportunity to say their farewells."

Brady suffered a bullet wound to his head in the assassination attempt outside the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981. Although he returned to the White House only briefly, he was allowed to keep the title of presidential press secretary and his White House salary until Reagan left office in January 1989.

A federal law requiring a background check on handgun buyers bears Brady's name, as does the White House press briefing room.

US President Barack Obama described Brady as a White House legend, who turned "the events of that terrible afternoon into a remarkable legacy of service". Thanks to Brady and the law bearing his name, "an untold number of people are alive today who otherwise wouldn't be", the president said in a statement.

Former first lady Nancy Reagan said she was "deeply saddened to learn of Jim Brady's passing today. Thinking of him brings back so many memories - happy and sad - of a time in all of our lives when we learned what it means to 'play the hand we're dealt'".

Of the four people struck by gunfire in the assassination attempt by John Hinckley, who was later found to be mentally ill, Brady was the most seriously wounded. A news clip of the shooting showed Brady sprawled on the ground as Secret Service agents hustled the wounded president into his limousine. Reagan was shot in one lung, while policeman Thomas Delahanty and a Secret Service agent suffered lesser wounds.

Brady never regained full health. The shooting caused brain damage, partial paralysis, short-term memory impairment, slurred speech and constant pain.

The many television replays of the shooting also took a toll on Brady. He said years later that he relived the moment each time he saw it: "I want to take every bit of [that] film ... and put them in a cement incinerator, slosh them with gasoline and throw a lighted cigarette in." He endured a series of brain operations in the years after the shooting.

His wife became involved in gun control efforts in 1985, and later chaired Handgun Control Inc, but Brady took a few more years to join her. Reagan did not endorse their efforts until 10 years after he was shot.

Reagan's surprise endorsement - he was a longtime National Rifle Association member and opponent of gun control laws - began to turn the tide in Congress.

The Brady law - formally known as the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act - required a five-day wait and background check before a handgun could be sold. In November 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law.

Clinton said on Monday that Brady "transformed his own personal tragedy into an opportunity to inspire change - for more than three decades he and Sarah encouraged all of us to create a more just and secure nation, free from handgun violence".

Gun control efforts have not been supported by the current Congress, however. Despite the December 2012 slayings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, when 20 children and six adults were killed, Obama's push to expand background checks and a ban on assault-like weapons died in the Senate. Clinton awarded Brady the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996.

In 2000, the press briefing room at the White House was renamed in Brady's honour. The following year, Handgun Control Inc., was renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence as a tribute to Brady and his wife.