Tuesday 23 December 2014

Obituary: James Brady, former presidential press secretary

Reagan aide who embraced gun control after being badly wounded by would-be assassin

Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30

Law: Bill Clinton signs into law the Brady bill as former White House press secretary James Brady looks on in 1993
Law: Bill Clinton signs into law the Brady bill as former White House press secretary James Brady looks on in 1993

James Brady, who died on Monday aged 73, was the White House press secretary who was shot in the head on March 30, 1981, when John Hinckley, a mentally ill college dropout, opened fire on President Ronald Reagan as he left the Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC. Brady's experiences led him to take on a prominent role in the subsequent campaign to tighten gun control in the United States.

Reagan was hit in the chest before being bundled into his limousine and whisked to hospital. A police officer and a Secret Service agent were also wounded. But of the four victims, Brady was the most seriously injured, sustaining a severe head wound that left him confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Watching the replayed news footage of the assassination attempt over the years took a toll on Brady, who sprawled on the ground after being shot and in the confusion was mistakenly declared dead by one news network. "I want to take every bit of [that] film," Brady once remarked, "and put them in a cement incinerator, slosh them with gasoline and throw a lighted cigarette in."

In the years following the shooting, he underwent a series of operations, and suffered partial paralysis, short-term memory loss, slurred speech and constant pain. Although he returned to work only briefly, Brady retained the title of presidential press secretary and continued to draw his White House salary until Reagan left office in January 1989. The White House press briefing room was subsequently named after him.

Brady also gave his name to a federal law passed 12 years after the shooting which requires a background check on people buying handguns. Under the Brady law, formally known as the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, gun- buyers also had to wait five days before a handgun could be sold, although the waiting period has since been replaced by an instant background check. Restrictions introduced in the Brady law are estimated to have blocked two million gun purchases.

The only child of a railway worker, James Scott Brady was born on August 29, 1940 ,in Centralia, Illinois. He sold encyclopedias door-to-door and collected empty soft-drink bottles to fund a Law degree course at the University of Illinois, and spent the summer of 1963 as an intern at the Justice Department in Washington. He dropped out of law school, however, and switched to studying public administration at Southern Illinois University.

Back in Washington, Brady worked for various federal agencies before joining Reagan's staff. He had been Reagan's press secretary for less than three months when Hinckley, who was apparently obsessed with the film star Jodie Foster, fired six shots at the President and his retinue with his .22-calibre revolver in less than two seconds. Found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982, Hinckley has since been confined to a mental hospital.

Fourteen years after the shooting, Brady settled a civil action against Hinckley by sharing the $3m profits Hinckley made from selling his life story with the wounded police officer and Secret Service agent.

Brady served as chairman of the National Organisation on Disability, a group that campaigns for better conditions for handicapped people, and as a spokesman for the National Head Injury Foundation.

At an emotional ceremony in 1993, when President Clinton signed the bill that bears his name into law, Brady described its adoption as "the end of unchecked madness and the commencement of a heartfelt crusade for a safer and saner country". Three years later Clinton awarded Brady the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

James Brady's second wife, Sarah, survives him with their son and a daughter from his first marriage.

Sunday Independent

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