Jim Brady, Press Secretary Turned Gun Control Activist, Dies At 73

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Jim Brady, the White House press secretary who was shot in the head by a gunman trying to assassinate President Reagan, has died at age 73. NPR's Brian Naylor reports on a man whose later life was dedicated to changing gun laws.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. Now we're going to remember James Brady who died today at age 73. Brady was the White House press secretary who was wounded in the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981. Brady was shot in the head. Afterward, along with his wife, Sarah, he became an advocate for stricter gun control laws. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: On March 30th, 1981 - 69 days into his presidency, Ronald Reagan was about to leave the Washington Hilton after giving a speech to the AFL-CIO when shots rang out. The first bullet hit his press secretary. Here's how ABC anchor Frank Reynolds described the scene.


FRANK REYNOLDS: We understand, also, that James Brady, the White House press secretary, was among those injured.

NAYLOR: Like the president, Brady was taken to George Washington University Hospital. It was a confusing scene. There were reports aired that Brady had died. Among the journalists at the hospital was NPR's Louise Schiavone, then a reporter for AP radio.

LOUISE SCHIAVONE, BYLINE: We had no firm information from any officials. It was just floating through occasionally someone would call - come in and say this was happening, that was happening. There were no deaths of either Brady or the president. So I said to my desk I'm not going to file that until somebody officially tells me that.

NAYLOR: Brady, of course, survived but his life was irrevocably changed. Wounded in the head, he faced years of therapy and pain. In a 2011 interview with NPR's Scott Simon, Brady said he tried to remember as little as possible of that day.


JAMES BRADY: I've worked very hard at forgetting as much about that as I possibly can.


J. BRADY: But I've not been able to do it.

SIMON: Still comes back now and then?

J. BRADY: Oh yes. Well, once you've been shot in the head, it's hard to forget.

NAYLOR: In the interview, Brady's wife, Sarah, prodded him to talk about his physical therapy.


SARAH BRADY: What did you call it? And he still works hard at physical therapy.

J. BRADY: Physical terrorism.

SIMON: (Laughing).

J. BRADY: And the people that work on you are physical terrorists.

NAYLOR: Brady was an experienced political operative having worked for Republicans in Congress and for the John Connolly campaign before coming over to Reagan. He was not on the shortlist to become press secretary. It was thought his burly, balding appearance was not quite camera-friendly enough. Today, the current White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, remembered Brady standing at his podium in what is now the James S. Brady briefing room.

JOSH EARNEST: Even after he was wounded in that attack on the president, was somebody who showed his patriotism and commitment to the country by being very outspoken on an issue that was important to him and that he felt very strongly about.

NAYLOR: That issue was gun control. Jim and Sarah became tireless and sometimes emotional advocates for stricter gun laws. In particular, they championed a bill that required federal background checks of anyone wishing to buy a gun at a gun shop. The shooter who wounded Brady, Reagan and two others that spring day in 1981, John Hinckley, bought his gun at a pawn shop. That background check requirement was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993. The lobbying group that worked for its passage is called the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Dan Gross is the center's president.

DAN GROSS: Beyond his name being on the front door of this organization, his presence always has been and always will be a fundamental part of everything that we go on to achieve as an organization and continue to build on his legacy.

NAYLOR: James Brady died today in Alexandria, Virginia. He leaves behind his wife Sarah and two children. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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