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Paul Helmke Headshot

Making Lemonade

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On this day 29 years ago, a robust, warm, funny, clever man in the prime of his life, at the pinnacle of his profession, took a bullet intended for the President of the United States. A man who charmed everyone, who served his country with great honor, saw his career destroyed and now lives in a wheelchair, battling severe pain.

Back then, this happened because we made it too easy in America for dangerous people to get dangerous guns. And we still do.

I first met Jim Brady when I was Mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana and was trying to do things to reduce the gun violence in my city. One of the things I appreciate about my current job as President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is that it's given me the chance to spend quality time with Jim, who is as affable and hilarious as he ever was. He tells remarkable jokes, and gives terrific advice. He's truly a great communicator in his own right. Over the years, whenever the organization needed a good Jim Brady quote, Jim Brady would write it best. For example, when Peter Coors was running for the U.S. Senate from Colorado and said he wanted to repeal the Brady Law, Jim said Coors "must be dipping into the product" and that "he ought to have his head examined." We are all frequently reminded of his comment "when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. I have several stands around here."

But it makes me angry to see him suffer. And it makes me angry when I think about how hard his wife Sarah's life, also, has been because of Jim's shooting. It is unfair. And it was completely unnecessary.

Jim Brady has to struggle to cross a room, and Sarah has to process elaborate details to get him across town to see the doctor, all because a dangerous, delusional man with a psychopathic crush on a movie star was able to buy a gun as easily as any of us buy a loaf of bread. Our weak gun laws, which back then relied totally on the "honor system" to keep felons and the dangerously mentally ill from buying guns, allowed the shooter to arm himself. All the Secret Service and law enforcement protection for the President wasn't enough to protect Jim and the other people shot that day. (And some still argue that shootings only happen in "gun-free zones.")

So after a multiyear struggle, we passed the Brady Law to slow the insanity. And almost two million dangerous people have been stopped from buying a gun since 1993. But we didn't finish the job.

We left glaring loopholes so other dangerous and evil men who decide to make themselves famous or avenge some paranoid grievance by destroying innocent life can go to a gun show, approach a table with a big banner shouting "Private Seller: No Background Checks," and weapon up. They can buy guns without a background check from "law-abiding citizens" like Timothy McVeigh, who used his gun show sale profits to blow up the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and kill 168 innocent people. The killers at Columbine were outfitted at a gun show. More recently, Mexican drug cartels apparently have used gun shows to buy a lot of the arms that allow them to be strategically competitive against a national government.

And what about people with firearms getting close to the President of the United States? Oh, we've really tightened our policies on that. Now radicals proudly carry assault rifles to visits by President Obama, and the current holder of Jim's old job says it's just fine, and they're not at all worried.

So it's 29 years for Jim and Sarah with today's anniversary. Twenty-nine years of pain, and wheelchairs, and specially equipped minivans, and nursing help, and physical therapy. This is a sad story: and, given the 80,000 nonfatal gun injuries that occur every year in this country, it's similar to way too many other families' stories. It's been made bearable and promising for the Bradys only by their mutual love for each other and the amazing generosity both of them have shown to their country.

We are all safer because of these two magnificent people. But we're far from being as safe as we could be.