Thirty years after Reagan was shot, Jim and Sarah Brady courageously keep the pressure on for gun control

As Reagan's press secretary, Jim Brady was seriously wounded during the shooting. You have to admire the dedication of the Bradys to keep pushing for reasonable gun control laws. But as the Bradys acknowledge, Washington must find the courage to stand up to the NRA.

Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP Photo/Newscom
Former White House Press Secretary Jim Brady looks over at his wife, Sarah, after speaking about new legislation curbing gun violence during a press conference on Capitol Hill on March 30. Mr. Brady was shot by John Hinckley during his attempt to assassinate former US President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Remember the Bradys? Not the bunch, but the dedicated couple that has pushed gun control for decades.

Thirty years ago, Jim Brady was shot in the head as part of the assassination attempt on President Reagan by John Hinckley. At the time, Mr. Brady was the president's press secretary. This week, Brady – in a wheelchair – and his wife, Sarah, visited the Capitol and White House to again advocate for restrictions on guns.

One marvels that they have not yet given up. Through "tear-stained optimism," as Sarah Brady put it in a Washington Post oped, they believe it's still possible to better restrict access to guns for those who shouldn't have them, without trampling on the rights of the many law-abiding citizens who own or want to buy firearms.

I was particularly interested in the analogy that Mrs. Brady made between the fight for more sensible gun laws and the struggle for a woman's right to vote and for full citizenship for African Americans. "Isn't that a bit of a stretch?" I asked myself as I read her piece in the Post. But then I looked at it a second time, and I realized she was underscoring the need for political courage in the face of intimidation as the thread that binds these three subjects.

Courage is the single most important ingredient needed to enact new laws to reduce gun violence.

Lawmakers have cowered before the gun lobby ever since 1994, when Democrats took huge losses because the National Rifle Association singled out those who voted for the "Brady bill" (a background check for gun purchasers at federally licensed dealers) and a ban on assault-style weapons. The scare was reinforced in 2000, when the NRA targeted Al Gore, who lost his home state of Tennessee in his bid for the White House.

Reasonable steps to reduce gun violence will never be taken if Democrats, Republicans, and the president don't stand up to the NRA. They can steel themselves with this knowledge: Even though polls show the country split on the broad subject of gun control, when you ask Americans to consider individual restrictive measures, they support them.

For instance, 87 percent approve of criminal background checks for all gun purchases, even those at gun shows – which are not currently covered by federal law, but which should be. This was the finding of a 2008 poll done for a bipartisan coalition of mayors who support more restrictions on guns. Another large majority, 82 percent, support limiting the sale of military-style assault weapons, according to a 2007 University of Chicago poll. A 2011 poll for the bipartisan mayors group shows that 58 percent approve of a ban on the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines (so does former Vice President Dick Cheney, by the way).

The Bradys spoke this week in favor of legislation to close the "gun show loophole," as well as for Democratic bills in the House and Senate to ban large-capacity gun magazines that can fire more than 10 rounds. After the assault-weapons ban expired in 2004, large-capacity clips were again sold, allowing, for instance, the January shooting in Tucson, Arizona that killed six and wounded 13 before the shooter had to pause to change clips.

Lawmakers and the president should also take courage in this: Endorsement by the NRA does not amount to an automatic win, nor does support for gun control legislation mean an automatic defeat. In 2008, voters still supported candidates who backed gun control, including Barack Obama. And in 2010, 27 Democrats in the House who were endorsed by the NRA lost their seats, while only two of the 101 Democrats who endorsed legislation to close the gun-show loophole lost. That's 99 who survived.

Particularly shameful is the stance of President Obama. He supported closing the gun-show loophole and restoring the assault-weapons ban in his 2008 campaign. Now he won't even back the baby-step effort in Congress to restrict large-capacity ammunition clips. In a March 13 oped in the Arizona Daily Star, the best he could do was to call for "a new discussion" between both sides on gun control, and to say that current laws need to be enforced.

NRA leader Wayne LaPierre rebuffed the president's invitation: "Why should I sit down with a group of people who have spent their life fighting the Second Amendment?" That's an obvious mischaracterization, especially since the Supreme Court has now settled the Second Amendment question.

Mr. LaPierre's refusal to talk is also a telltale sign of bullying. The thing about bullying, though, is that once you stand up to it, once you lose your fear, it loses its aura of perceived strength. To mention another historic analogy, just look at what's happening in the Middle East. People have had enough. Two dictators have fallen. Others are on shaky ground.

Every year, about 30,000 people in the United States are killed by gun violence. That's too many. Reasonable steps can be taken to bring that number down; to prevent criminals and others who shouldn't have guns from getting them; to keep military-style assault weapons off the streets.

Most Americans know this. But Washington has not yet caught on. It can't see very well from under the thumb of the NRA.

"Jim and I believe that the NRA's mythological power will be consigned to the ash bins of time," Sarah Brady wrote. Keep on believing, Bradys. Eventually, Washington will believe, too. But it will need courage to do so.

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