Some of the most powerful lessons about what is good for a nation begin with one person's tragedy. But too often, they're not implemented until more people are martyred to the cause.
When he went to work as Ronald Reagan's press secretary in 1981, James Brady could scarcely have imagined that gun control advocacy would become his life's purpose. His boss had touted Second Amendment rights in his presidential campaign. Tea party activists even made a poster of the former president saying, "You can't get gun control by disarming law abiding citizens." With his signature, Reagan made it easier to transport guns between states and ended federal records keeping on ammunition sales.
But the shooting two months into Reagan's administration that injured him and left Brady paralyzed turned Brady and his wife, Sarah, into influential gun-reform activists.
Brady died Monday at 73, 22 years after becoming collateral damage to John Hinckley Jr.'s twisted fantasies about killing the president to win the affections of actress Jodie Foster. "There are few Americans in history who are as directly responsible for saving as many lives," Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said in a statement.
Brady's signature achievement is the law that bears his name. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires federal background checks on gun purchases. According to Gross, it has blocked 2 million gun sales to criminals, domestic abusers and other dangerous people. Though introduced in 1987, it didn't become law until after Reagan had left office. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to the gun lobby, especially while courting Republican constituencies.
But Reagan did eventually come around. The former president who once wrote in Guns & Ammo magazine that gun control is pointless because murder can't be prevented, wrote a 1991 New York Times opinion piece saying the 1981 shooting might not have happened if the Brady Bill had been law then. "This level of violence must be stopped," he wrote, noting 9,200 people were murdered in a year by handguns. Reagan later joined former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in calling on Congress to pass an assault weapons ban, which still hasn't happened.
Meanwhile, the number of gun fatalities has inched steadily upward. Congress has passed no significant gun control measures since 1993. It is now legal to carry a concealed weapon in all 50 states, according to the National Gun Victims Action Council, a nonprofit network of gun victims, survivors and the faith community. We've gotten used to seeing bodies - even tiny ones - carried out of schools, colleges, movie theaters and places of worship on the nightly news. Twenty-one states have recently taken it upon themselves to enact gun laws, but there is much more to be done. The Brady campaign rates every state (http://www.bradycampaign.org/2013-state-scorecard).
NGVAC offers a common-sense set of proposals that could make us all safer without taking away gun owners' rights. They include: That every gun owner be licensed and every gun be registered and insured; that criminals, mentally ill people and those legally prohibited from buying guns be barred from buying them at gun shows or over the Internet; that no one be allowed to carry guns into restaurants, bars, schools, and other gathering places; and that every gun have a smart trigger so it can only fire after recognizing the owner's fingerprint.
Part of NGVAC's approach is to lobby corporations to prohibit guns from their premises in much the same way the anti-smoking campaign did to get rid of second-hand cigarette smoke. Starbucks, Sonic Drive-In, Chipotle, Jack in the Box and Target already don't allow people to carry guns in their stores, according to the organization.
It's unfortunate that it has to take tragedies before politicians muster up the fortitude to say no to a lobby or a political stance. Ironically, years after Reagan came around to gun-control advocacy and was suffering from Alzheimer's, his wife Nancy Reagan, broke ranks with another Republican president, George W. Bush, to plead for federal embryonic stem-cell research that might help people like her husband. Real life can intrude on hard-line stances.
But when it does, it can have an impact. "Jim and Sarah demonstrated that it was possible to turn a terrible tragedy into real change," said the statement by the Brady Campaign president. Let's not let Brady's life pass without dedicating ourselves, as leaders, as parents and as individuals, to sensible gun-safety measures. We don't need another human face to attach to the cause. We have enough legacies now, from Tucson, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Newtown and beyond to have this lesson learned.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.