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Dennis A. Henigan Headshot

The Jim Brady Effect

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The passing of Jim Brady, former presidential press secretary and icon of the gun control movement, has saddened us all. I had the privilege of working with Jim and Sarah Brady for much of my professional life. Politico asked me to share my thoughts about Jim's gun control legacy. Here are my reflections on "The Jim Brady Effect."

On Monday, Jim Brady finally lost his battle against the devastating effects of a single bullet wound inflicted 33 years ago during the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. For 23 years, I had the privilege of being one of the "Brady Bunch" (as the National Rifle Association liked to call us), a soldier in Jim and Sarah Brady's army of crusaders for sensible gun laws. As difficult and frustrating as the gun issue can be, for me it was a labor of love. When asked what I did for a living, it was always special to be able to say, "I work for Jim and Sarah Brady."

Of course, everyone who has worked at the Brady organization has felt an intense devotion to the gun-control cause. Somehow, however, Jim made the cause personal for us. He was the living embodiment of the consequences of gun violence -- his pain, his loss of freedom, his struggle to overcome the daily physical and mental barriers to the kind of life the rest of us take for granted. But our personal commitment also had much to do with the sheer force of Jim's character and personality. He attracted people like moths to a flame. They liked him and they wanted to be near him.

There was, of course, the legendary Jim Brady humor. Seldom did he greet me by my given name. I was always "Henny Denigan." Or "Dennis the Menace." Mostly it was the one-liners, the razor-sharp quips when you least expected them, causing all listeners to forget, in the midst of the laughter, what you were talking about in the first place. Each one of those jokes was a small miracle, giving way to a sense of wonder at how Jim could be more clever, after all he had been through, than anyone else in the room. Whether he was in the office or not, Jim was an inspiration for us every single day. And, believe me, there were many days when inspiration was sorely needed. When you are manning the barricades against the most powerful lobby in Washington, it is easy to let a creeping sense of futility get the better of you. Five minutes with Jim Brady would make you ashamed to feel discouraged.

Certainly over the last 25 years, no issue has been identified with a single name as powerfully as the gun-control issue has been identified with the name Brady. No two people have been as consequential to a single cause as Jim and Sarah Brady have been to the cause of preventing gun violence. As health issues compelled the Bradys to be less and less active on the gun issue, their absence has been keenly felt. What accounted for their singular impact? For his part in this dynamic duo, what is Jim Brady's gun control legacy?

The most obvious answer is the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, the legislation signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993 requiring background checks on gun purchasers from licensed dealers. Without question, the Brady Law is one of the most successful statutes in modern history, stopping an estimated two million legally prohibited gun buyers from purchasing guns from dealers and inaugurating a historic decline in violent gun crime in America. But Jim's legacy does not consist of legislative success alone. Just as lasting will be the lessons he and Sarah have taught us about how to take the fight to the NRA and overcome its intimidating power.

They taught us that the gun-control movement will succeed only if it is seen as representative of ordinary people, offering them the promise of safer, more secure lives. One of the NRA's key strategies is to paint gun control advocates as coastal elitists, out of touch with the concerns of "real Americans." When deployed against the Bradys, it was a strategy doomed to fail. For all his achievements and political sophistication, Jim Brady was still a down-to-earth Midwesterner with not a pretentious bone in his body. When he and Sarah did what Sarah called their "dog and pony show" before a crowd, their listeners instantly identified with them - they saw them as ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. To be successful, the gun-control movement must be seen, once again, as the "people's lobby" taking on a tiny, extremist minority of gun owners skillfully mobilized by the NRA to oppose policies most of us regard as common sense.

They taught us that the gun-control movement will succeed only by building far-reaching coalitions with groups representing the many diverse segments of our society affected by gun violence. By virtue of the power of their personal story, and the appeal of their personalities, the Bradys brought people in - the doctors, the nurses, the teachers, the preachers, the police and, yes, even gun owners. Each of these groups had concerns just as important, or more so, than gun violence, but they could be mobilized on the gun issue when it counted.

They taught us that it was OK to be aggressive, even confrontational, but that it helps to do it with a smile. Jim Brady never lost his deft touch with a memorable phrase -- the NRA was the "evil empire" and those in Congress who recoiled with fear of the gun lobby were the "cowardly lions." Jim was known as the "Bear," and to his friends he was a bear of the gentle, teddy variety. But Jim was a teddy bear with claws. He and Sarah understood that voters need to know who in Congress is voting against the safety of cops on the street or students in the classroom, and they were not shy about naming names.

They taught us that we must engage the gun lobby on all fronts, in the media, in the policy forums, in the legislatures, in the courts, but that it is especially critical to engage on the battleground of electoral politics. We never had the political resources to match the NRA, but Sarah and Jim had no joy greater than to fly into a swing district to endorse a candidate in a tight race and denounce the NRA-supported opponent. Often they made the difference. In recent years, too many candidates have had nothing to fear politically from voting with the gun lobby. They had reason to fear Jim and Sarah Brady.

Finally, they taught us that the gun-control issue is a story of courage vs. cowardice. There is no question that a sizeable majority of Congress understands that legislation like that pushed in the wake of the Newtown shooting - to extend Brady background checks to all gun sales - would make their constituents safer. Yet so many in Congress won't support it, purely because they fear political reprisal from the NRA. If only those members had a fraction of the courage Jim Brady showed every day for the last 33 years of his life, legislation to universalize Brady background checks would pass easily.

Jim Brady's legacy points the right way. The gun control movement should honor it, and learn from it.