President Ronald Reagan, in office barely two months on March 30, 1981, stepped out of a doorway at the Washington Hilton Hotel after giving a luncheon speech. Waiting for him with a .22-caliber pistol was a mentally ill 24-year-old man named John W. Hinckley Jr.
Hinckley purchased his pistol at a pawnshop in Dallas in October 1980. He falsified his address and used an expired Texas driver's license.
As Reagan walked to his limousine, Hinckley fired a fusillade of bullets, which struck the president in the chest. Reagan barely survived; the bullet just missed his aorta. Along with a Secret Service agent and a Washington, D.C., police officer, President Reagan's press secretary, the lively and personable James Brady, was shot in the head. Photographs from the scene showed Brady facedown with his face in a grate.
After months of arduous surgeries and rehabilitation, he survived, as did all the other victims of the shooting. Brady was partially paralyzed and mostly used a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. Brady died Monday at 73.
Along with his wife, Sarah, Brady is best known for his advocacy of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, also known as the Brady Bill. It called for a five-day waiting period, which later transitioned to instant computerized background checks of handgun purchasers. Had Hinckley been subject to the check included in the law, Brady might not have had to endure 33 years of debility and pain.
Sarah Brady served as chair of the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, and the couple worked tirelessly to stop the carnage wrought by these weapons.
In a nation where thousands of Americans are slaughtered by handguns, and thousands more are wounded and disfigured, Brady's physical and political courage in helping to pass the law led to countless lives being saved. The Brady Bill was introduced in 1987; it took six years and a fight against the National Rifle Association to pass the law.
Reagan said the law "can't help but stop thousands of illegal handgun purchases." In 1996, President Bill Clinton awarded Brady the Presidential Medal of Freedom.