WASHINGTON — James Brady, the affable, witty press secretary who survived a devastating head wound in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and undertook a personal crusade for gun control, died today. He was 73.
“We are heartbroken to share the news that our beloved Jim “Bear” Brady has passed away after a series of health issues,” Brady’s family said in a statement. “His wife, Sarah, son, Scott, and daughter, Missy, are so thankful to have had the opportunity to say their farewells.” The statement did not say where Brady was when he died.
Brady suffered a bullet wound to his head outside the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981. Although he returned to the White House only briefly, he was allowed to keep the title of presidential press secretary and his White House salary until Reagan left office in January 1989.
Brady spent much of the rest of his life in a wheelchair. A federal law requiring a background check on handgun buyers bears his name, as is the White House press briefing room.
“He is somebody who I think really revolutionized this job,” said Josh Earnest, President Barack Obama’s press secretary. “And 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.”
Brady “leaves the kind of legacy ... that certainly this press secretary and all future press secretaries will aspire to live up to,” Earnest said.
Of the four people stuck by gunfire on March 30, 1981, Brady was the most seriously wounded. A news clip of the shooting, replayed often on television, showed Brady sprawled on the ground as Secret Service agents hustled the wounded president into his limousine. Reagan was shot in one lung while a policeman and a Secret Service agent suffered lesser wounds.
Brady never regained full health. The shooting caused brain damage, partial paralysis, short-term memory impairment, slurred speech and constant pain.
The TV replays of the shooting did take a toll on Brady, however. He told The Associated Press years later that he relived the moment each time he saw it: “I want to take every bit of (that) film ... and put them in a cement incinerator, slosh them with gasoline and throw a lighted cigarette in.” With remarkable courage, he endured a series of brain operations in the years after the shooting.
On Nov. 28, 1995, while he was in an oral surgeon’s office, Brady’s heart stopped beating and he was taken to a hospital. His wife, Sarah, credited the oral surgeon and his staff with saving Brady’s life.