James S. Brady, the former White House press secretary who became one of the nation’s leading gun control advocates after being shot in the head during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, died Monday at the age of 73.
The popular spokesman was named Reagan’s first press secretary in 1981, after serving as spokesperson for the Office of the President-Elect. But his service and his life were disrupted just months into the new administration after the shooting outside a Washington hotel left him, the president and two others wounded.
“We are enormously proud of Jim’s remarkable accomplishments — before he was shot on the fateful day in 1981 while serving at the side of President Ronald Reagan and in the days, months and years that followed,” his family said in a statement Monday.
With his wife Sarah, Mr. Brady went on to found a lobbying group that came to be known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and his efforts were credited with helping persuade President Clinton to sign a major gun restriction law 12 years after he was shot.
The family’s statement did not say where Mr. Brady was when he died, but said they were “heartbroken” and that Mr. Brady, who largely was confined to a wheelchair after the shooting, had suffered several recent health problems.
“Jim was the personification of courage and perseverance. He and Sarah never gave up, and never stopped caring about the causes in which they believed,” former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement on Monday.
Mr. Brady was shot in the head during the assassination attempt, and several news outlets incorrectly reported that Mr. Brady had died in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. The surgeon who worked on removing the bullet from his brain, after hearing the false reports, famously quipped that “nobody has informed me and the patient.”
After the shooting, Mr. Brady sustained injuries that caused complications for months. The bullet had exploded into several fragments in his brain, causing him to stay in the hospital until Nov. 23, 1981, when he was finally cleared to leave. Mr. Brady endured many more operations over the years. He never recovered the normal use of his limbs and was often in a wheelchair. Besides partial paralysis from brain damage, he suffered short-term memory impairment, slurred speech and constant pain.
Mr. Brady developed a staunch position on gun control after the assassination attempt, becoming chair of what became the nation’s best-known gun control lobbying group. In 1993, the “Brady Bill” was also signed into law by President Bill Clinton, requiring waiting periods and background checks for those buying from federally licensed firearms vendors. Mr. Brady and Mrs. Brady continued to fight for further gun restrictions until the end of his life.
Mr. Brady was a strong Republican from an early age. As a boy of 12 in Centralia, Illinois, where he was born on Aug. 29, 1940, he distributed election literature for Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In a long string of political jobs, Mr. Brady worked for Sen. Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, Sen. William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware and John Connally, the former Texas governor who ran for president in 1979. When Connally dropped out, Mr. Brady joined Reagan’s campaign as director of public affairs and research.
Previously, he had worked in the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford: as special assistant to the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, as special assistant to the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant to the defense secretary.
He was divorced from the former Sue Beh when, in 1973, he courted Sarah Jane Kemp, the daughter of an FBI agent who was working with him in a congressional office. Dan Gross, current head of the Brady Campaign, commended Mr. Brady’s work in a statement Monday and wrote that “there are few Americans in history who are as directly responsible for saving as many lives as Jim.”
Known as “The Bear,” Mr. Brady was seen as an effective spokesman for Mr. Reagan who often used humor to deflect tough questioning. Through Mr. Brady never returned to the day-to-day work of press secretary after the shooting, he nominally retained the position until the end of the Reagan administration. In 2000, the White House briefing room was renamed the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.
He was also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.