President Bill Clinton once summed up the public service of Jim and Sarah Brady this way: "If it hadn't been for them, we would not have passed the Brady Law, and then the ban on assault weapons, and on cop-killer bullets...How many people are alive today because of Jim and Sarah Brady? How many? Countless."
How many people, indeed? From how many cities and towns and counties across our country? From how many races, religions, economic backgrounds and circumstances?
Since it's impossible to prove what never happened, we'll never know how many lives have been saved because of the contributions of Jim and Sarah Brady. It's part of their legacy, and ours, not to be able to count the vast numbers of Americans who are living out their lives and hopes and dreams because of Jim and Sarah's leadership in the movement to prevent gun violence.
This is a legacy, however, that has its roots in the terror-laden seconds 30 years ago when a mentally-ill man armed with a 22-caliber handgun shot President Reagan, a Secret Service agent, a police officer and Jim Brady. Just 69 days earlier, Jim had achieved his long-held dream of becoming White House Press Secretary. Of the four wounded, Jim's injury was the most severe -- a gunshot to the head left him partially paralyzed for life.
The Bradys took a few years to heal and adjust to radically different life circumstances, but in 1985, they laid the foundation for a gift to us of service and sacrifice that endures.
The Bradys actively joined the gun violence prevention movement that year and devoted their hearts and minds and energies to the enactment of common sense gun restrictions. At one point, Sarah traveled 200 days out of the year. From outlawing armor-piercing "cop-killer" bullets to banning metal-detector-evading "plastic" guns; from their support of laws to limit illegal gun trafficking and curtail corrupt gun dealers to the Brady Center's outstanding and unique advocacy in the courts for gun violence victims; Jim and Sarah's leadership on gun law reforms has saved lives and brought justice to Americans who have suffered traumatic injuries and loss of life.
In 1993, after 7 years of legislative struggle and gun lobby opposition, Jim and Sarah joined President Bill Clinton as he signed the Brady Law, which requires background checks on handguns purchased at federally licensed dealers. Since taking effect in1994, 2 million gun purchases attempted by dangerous and irresponsible people, like felons, have been blocked by the Brady background check system.
In 1996, President Clinton awarded Jim the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among the highest civilian honors in the United States. Four years later, President Clinton officially named the White House Press Briefing Room "The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room" in Jim's honor. A plaque recognizing his service as White House Press Secretary now adorns that high-profile space.
We now mark the anniversary of Jim's shooting with a renewed sense of loss: Tucson. A major difference between the two tragedies is that the outcome on January 8 was even more deadly. The shooter was armed with large-capacity assault clip that allowed him to shoot 32 bullets in just under 16 seconds. His killing spree ended only after he stopped to reload and witnesses bravely moved to subdue him.
In the face of personal adversity and unrelenting challenges, Jim and Sarah Brady have provided inspiration and a conscience for America. The greatest honor we can give them is to make our voices heard in Washington and in statehouses across the country. We must demand that our elected representatives ban assault clips, require effective background checks for all gun sales, and give law enforcement the tools to stop the trafficking in illegal guns. The passage of sensible new guns laws making it hard for dangerous and irresponsible people to get guns would be a tribute worthy of these special Americans, who have given this nation their all.
Paul Helmke is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Follow the Brady Campaign on Facebook and Twitter. This entry, along with past entries, has been co-posted on The Brady Campaign site.