James Brady, who became a leading proponent of gun limits after he was grievously wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt on his then-boss, President Ronald Reagan, has died. He was 73.
Brady, who used a wheelchair since the shooting, died yesterday at a retirement residence in Alexandria, Virginia, according to Gail Hoffman, a family spokeswoman. The cause was complications of health issues resulting from his wounds.
With his wife, Sarah, Brady helped lead the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, formerly known as Handgun Control Inc. The 1993 law that requires federal background checks of gun buyers in the U.S. was titled the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and is commonly called the Brady Bill.
The law has blocked about 2 million sales of firearms “to criminals, domestic abusers and other dangerous people,” Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, said yesterday in a statement. There are “few Americans in history who are as directly responsible for saving as many lives as Jim,” he said.
Known as Bear, Brady became White House press secretary when Reagan took office in January 1981. Just two months later, on March 30, Reagan, Brady and two law-enforcement officers were struck by bullets fired by John Hinckley in an assassination attempt outside a Washington hotel.
A wound to Brady’s head left him partially paralyzed for the rest of his life, his speech slurred. Though he never returned to work as press secretary, the Reagan administration maintained his title for the rest of its almost eight years in office. Daily White House press conferences are held in what is now called the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.
Arthur Kobrine, the brain surgeon who led the team of doctors that saved Brady’s life, said Brady “rewrote the textbooks” on recovering from traumatic brain injuries. He credited Brady’s recovery to the rapid medical care he received in the minutes after having been shot, plus an indefatigable attitude.
“A lot of it was him,” Kobrine said yesterday a telephone interview. “He was demanding, cracked jokes, had a great sense of humor. He would say to me, ‘I refuse to be a cripple.’”
Reagan, shot in the chest and arm, recovered after emergency surgery for a punctured lung and served two terms in office. Following his surgery, he was informed by the White House physician, Daniel Ruge, that Brady was fighting for his life.
“Oh, damn,” Reagan replied, his eyes welling with tears, Del Quentin Wilber, now a reporter for Bloomberg News, wrote in “Rawhide Down” (2011).
“I was deeply saddened to learn of Jim Brady’s passing,” former first lady Nancy Reagan said yesterday in a statement. “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.’”
She said she and her husband, who died in 2004, “enjoyed his company, trusted his judgment and relied on him. So did the press corps.”
Hinckley, who was 25 at the time of the shooting, had an obsession with the actress Jodie Foster and was inspired by her role in the 1976 movie, “Taxi Driver,” in which her co-star Robert De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle, attempts to kill a politician, according to an account in the New York Times. Hinckley was charged with 13 criminal counts in the shooting and was found not guilty by reason of insanity on all charges in 1982. The verdict led to passage of more restrictive use of the insanity defense in federal courts.
Hinckley was sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington. He has been permitted to leave the facility to visit his mother’s home in Williamsburg, Virginia since 2006, according to the Associated Press.
In a 2011 interview with National Public Radio, to mark the 30th anniversary of the shooting, Brady said he remembered “as little as possible” of the day he was shot.
“I’ve worked very hard at forgetting as much about that as I possibly can,” he said. “But I’ve not been able to do it.”
In the interview, his wife described their son as a “good liberal,” leading the interviewer to ask whether he’s a Republican. “No,” Brady said. “Nor are we anymore,” his wife added. “Times change.”
James Scott Brady was born on Aug. 29, 1940, in Centralia, Illinois, according to a biography on the Brady Campaign website. He graduated in 1962 with a degree in political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was on the wrestling team.
While in college he worked for Republican Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen. After college he worked for the Illinois State Medical Society and in advertising and public relations.
In 1973 he moved to Washington from Chicago and held posts in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Office of Management and Budget. He worked for Delaware Senator William Roth and as press secretary for the 1980 presidential campaign of former Texas Governor John Connally.
After Connally dropped out, Brady joined Reagan’s ultimately successful campaign.
With the former Sarah Kamp, Brady had a son, James Jr., according to the biography. He also had a daughter, Melissa, from a previous marriage.
(An earlier version of this story corrected a reference to the movie “Taxi Driver.”)