Thirty-seven years ago today White House Press Secretary Jim “Bear” Brady was shot in the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Jim lived with constant pain and physical challenges for 33 years before that bullet to his head ultimately took his life in 2014, in what was ruled a homicide by the DC Medical Examiner.
In 1987, I began working as Legislative Director for Handgun Control, Inc. – now the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. My job was to get the newly – introduced Brady Bill through Congress, and I was privileged to work closely with Sarah and Jim Brady over many years as we, and an extraordinary team, made this a reality.
Sarah had become involved in the organization before I started, moved to action – not just by Jim’s shooting – but by the loss of a colleague to gun violence when they worked together on Capitol Hill, and then the last straw – her small child picking up a loaded gun as they sat in a friend’s pickup truck. In 1986, when Sarah learned the NRA was working in Congress to dismantle the 1968 Gun Control Act, Sarah joined the fight, volunteering for Handgun Control, Inc. Despite all she was dealing with at home, Sarah was determined to do something to prevent what happened to Jim and her family from happening to others.
People don’t realize how tough the political climate was back then on guns – what a challenge it was to move any gun reform bill through Congress. When we began we had both parties against us, as the issue was deemed radioactive. But we refused to listen to naysayers or believe that it couldn’t be done. We persevered, making the case – one by one – to Members of Congress that a convicted felon (or other prohibited gun purchaser) should not be able to walk into a gun store and walk out with a gun without a check.
We worked methodically to build support for the Brady Bill, and along with our allies in law enforcement and coalition of supporters, we gradually won over key Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle – from urban, suburban and rural districts. Despite our best efforts, in 1988 we lost the first House vote on the Brady Bill 228-182. It was a devastating blow, but we picked ourselves up and kept at it, using our loss as a roadmap to better prepare for the next round.
Jim first spoke publicly in support of the Brady Bill in 1989, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he said, “This statistic has decided to break his silence.” Jim told it like it was – there were too many cowardly lions walking the halls of Congress. He talked about what it was like to be “in his wheels” – and shared how being shot impacted him – physically and emotionally. From that day forward, Jim – like Sarah – made it his mission to get the Brady Bill and an assault weapons ban passed. The momentum continued from there, but we faced challenges all along the way.
In May of 1991, we finally won passage of the Brady Bill by a vote of 239-186 in the House, followed by a Senate win the next month by 67-32. After four long years, how ecstatic we were. But it was not to become law. Then-President George Bush stated he would not sign the bill unless it was part of a larger crime bill. It took yet another set of votes in the next Congress and a new President to sign it. After six hard-fought years, the Brady Bill was finally passed in the House and Senate and signed by President Clinton in November 1993. Since that landmark legislation took effect in 1994, more than 3 million unlawful purchases have been blocked – saving countless lives.
Along the way, we worked to pass a ban on assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines, which became law in 1994. But because it contained a 10-year “sunset” provision, the law expired in 2004 and we have since seen the deadly consequences as Congress failed to renew it.
In addition to reviving the assault weapon ban, we always felt we needed to expand the Brady Law to cover all gun sales, not just those that occur through licensed dealers. We had confidence it would happen in the future – we just had no idea it would take so long.
The students moved to action after the horrific massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, have sparked a nationwide movement and momentum that has not been seen since the days of the Brady Bill fight. Sarah and Jim would be so very proud of the brave students who are today telling it like it is and calling out lawmakers. Students everywhere are speaking out and marching forward – as the Bradys would do if they were here. Just as we never gave up and ultimately prevailed, so will this student-fueled effort to finish what we started – keeping guns out of dangerous hands and limiting assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines to the battlefield.
Sarah and Jim would be so gratified that the Brady Campaign is at the forefront of this effort today. Today’s leaders for common-sense gun reform will succeed because like Sarah and Jim, they are unwilling to accept that the NRA is invincible – because it is not!