Thirty years ago, a disturbed young man with a $22 revolver almost ended the lives of President Ronald Reagan and his press secretary, James Brady. Like other anniversaries of historic events, this one is cause for reflection, particularly about the impact of the shooting on our nation's continuing struggle to stem the tide of gun violence.
For 30 years, a wheelchair-bound Jim Brady, drawing strength from the unyielding devotion of his wife Sarah, has fought to overcome the indescribable damage inflicted by a single bullet. With uncommon courage, Jim and Sarah took on another battle as well. It was four years after the shooting that Sarah, infuriated at the gun lobby's efforts to gut our gun laws, picked up the phone, called the headquarters of the National Rifle Association, and delivered this message: "My name is Sarah Brady, and you've never heard of me, but I am going to make it my life's ambition to try to put you all out of business."
Looking back, we know that Jim and Sarah did not exactly put the NRA out of business. But they have made a difference -- by exemplifying the very idea of the "citizen activist" taking on an intimidating special interest lobby. President Clinton once asked, "How many people are alive today because of Jim and Sarah Brady?" He answered his own question: "Countless."
Jim and Sarah rallied Americans from every corner of society to support the Brady Bill -- one of the great public policy triumphs of the last 30 years. By requiring background checks on gun purchases from licensed dealers, since its passage in 1993, the Brady law has stopped two million gun purchases by convicted felons and other dangerous individuals. A year later, the Bradys successfully led the fight to ban military-style assault weapons and large-volume ammunition clips, another critical public safety law. Its unfortunate expiration in 2004 helped to put one of those military-style ammo clips in the hands of Jared Loughner, giving him the firepower to shoot 32 times in about 16 seconds in Tucson, killing six and wounding 13 in the time it takes to read this sentence.
For more than 20 years, I have had the privilege of being part of Jim and Sarah's crusade, an experience of both exhilarating triumph and deflating frustration. It seems so clear that additional sensible measures should be enacted to strengthen our gun laws and save lives. For example, we ought to build on the success of the Brady law by extending Brady background checks to encompass all gun sales, not just sales by licensed dealers. And we must, once again, confine military firepower to the battlefield, by reinstating a ban on high-capacity ammo clips. Why hasn't such legislation long ago been enacted?
Usually such a question prompts a discussion of the NRA's outsized political power -- its resources, its tactics of threats and intimidation, and the commitment of its cadre of true believers. Indeed, in recent years, the gun control issue has become so dominated by the question of whether stronger gun laws can be enacted, that it has left little room to address the real issue -- whether stronger gun laws should be enacted.
With some notable recent exceptions, since the 1990s the media, led by many in the political punditry, has become so accustomed to assuming that nothing can be done to reduce the bloodshed that it has paid less and less attention to the gun violence problem itself and its solutions. We also have seen politicians who believe in stronger gun laws stop talking about the issue because the political barriers are perceived to be "just too difficult."
The focus on politics has become oddly self-fulfilling. The more the national conversation focuses on the dominance of the gun lobby, the more we suppress the policy debate that could overcome that dominance.
Indeed, the only way to alter the politics of the issue is to have a vigorous debate about solutions. The fact is that for every historic law that has made our country a better place -- from Social Security to civil rights to environmental protection -- there was a time when enactment seemed politically impossible. I remember well when many saw the Brady Bill as a quixotic quest. But arguments change minds, new voices change minds and, most important, the idealism of citizen activists like Jim and Sarah Brady changes minds.
In the wake of the Tucson tragedy, President Obama has called for a "new discussion on how we can keep America safe for all our people." He's not calling for a discussion about politics. He wants a discussion about solutions. If we follow his advice, we will have taken an important step toward making America safe for all our people.
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)