When I think of Sarah Brady, I think of the Wizard of Oz, and the Irish salmon.
First, Oz. With an Irishman’s gift of storytelling she must have gotten from her beloved Jim, Sarah would regale me (and many other friends and colleagues) with tales of her battling the corporate gun lobby to pass the Brady Law. She would tell how, as she walked the halls of Congress, she would classify those senators and congressmen who did the gun lobby’s bidding as characters from the Wizard of Oz: one was the Cowardly Lion, another the Scarecrow, the next, the Tin Man. “That one doesn’t have a heart,” she would say. “That one doesn’t have a brain.” She’d be laughing by that point in the story, and so would the rest of us. “And that one doesn’t have the nerve. Some didn’t have all three!”
Sarah’s story makes clear what those of us who were blessed with her friendship knew well. She loved life, she liked having fun, and could always see the humor in things. When you’re playing Sisyphus, pushing the boulder of sensible gun policies up a seemingly unscalable mountain of gun lobby money, a sense of fun—and life’s absurdities—helps to get through the inevitable disappointments. Who knows? Maybe self-imaging as Dorothy led to one of the most impactful public safety laws in American history.
Then there’s the salmon. One day while Sarah, Brady’s then-legislative director Tony Orza, and I were lobbying on the Hill, then-Senator John Warner warmly recalled one of his first campaign events in Virginia. Jim had heard that Warner loved Irish salmon, so he had scurried around town until he found some to bring. 30 or 40 years later, Warner’s eyes still got teary at Jim’s kindness. Once we left the meeting and got in the hall, Sarah said, “We’ve got to get him a salmon!” Back in the office we researched how much smoked fish we could buy a sitting Senator without violating an ethics rule, then had the legally-permissible limit Fed-Exed to him. I believe Warner later took a stand for the assault weapons ban we were discussing (not that he was swayed by the salmon). And I still have a copy of his thank-you letter to Sarah on my office wall at the Brady Center.
The point is, Sarah was nice—her warmth was infectious—but she was also crafty, with a keen sense of how to appeal to people. She didn’t need polling and focus groups; she could look someone in the eye—or hear that crack in their voice recalling a memory—and decide on the best tact. I’m certain Sarah’s street smarts gave many a Cowardly Lion the nerve to take on the corporate gun lobby and pass the Brady law.
Maybe it’s her love of life that drove her. Sarah understood more than anyone what a bullet can take away. What Jim retained—or recovered—after his shooting was remarkable, but it only highlighted what was taken from him, and from him and Sarah . . . their whole family. A million shooting victims a decade in America is an unfathomable statistic; the number becomes unbearable when one appreciates the laughter those bullets silence.
The lives Sarah saved and those she inspired to fight for a safer America are uncountable. But it’s her laughter I’ll miss most.