James Brady

James Brady is seen in his role as White House press secretary in this 1980 file photo. Brady died Monday, Aug. 4 at age 73. (Frank Johnston, The Washington Post / August 4, 2014)

James S. Brady, the often-irreverent press secretary to President Ronald Reagan who was shot in the head during an assassination attempt on his boss in 1981 and who became an enduring symbol of the fight against unfettered access to guns in American society, died Monday at a retirement community in Alexandria, Va. He was 73.

Gail Hoffman, a family spokeswoman, confirmed his death and said she did not know the immediate cause. Brady had long suffered from health problems resulting from the shooting.

Brady remained an influential presence in the gun-control debate decades after the attack, which left him partially paralyzed. He and his wife, Sarah, often described as the "first family" of gun control, battled six years to pass legislation that in 1993 ushered in background checks for handguns bought from federally licensed dealers.

"Jim is a legend at the White House," President Barack Obama said in a statement, "for his warmth and professionalism as press secretary for President Reagan; for the strength he brought to bear in recovering from the shooting that nearly killed him 33 years ago; and for turning the events of that terrible afternoon into a remarkable legacy of service through the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Since 1993, the law that bears Jim's name has kept guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals. An untold number of people are alive today who otherwise wouldn't be, thanks to Jim."

Brady was a veteran Republican aide and a popular figure among Washington journalists. He was equipped with a rapier wit and a buoyant charm that tended to defuse controversy even before he began working for the White House in January 1981.

Incoming first lady Nancy Reagan had reportedly urged her husband to appoint a press secretary who was young and handsome enough to represent the White House on television.

Nicknamed "The Bear" for his burly physique, Brady was also balding and nearing 40. At the next press briefing, he quipped to the gathered journalists, "I come before you today as not just another pretty face, but out of sheer talent."

The assassination attempt, 69 days into the Reagan presidency, redefined Brady from a garrulous footnote in American politics into an impassioned and often-impatient voice for gun-control legislation.

On March 30, 1981, Brady had originally asked one of his aides to go with the president on a routine assignment to address a gathering of the AFL-CIO at the Hilton Hotel on Connecticut Avenue NW in Washington. Brady changed his mind at the last minute and joined Reagan.

After speaking to the union delegates, Reagan and his party made their way out of the hotel and were walking to the presidential limousine when they were fired on about 2:30 p.m. The shooter was John W. Hinckley Jr., a young man who said he hoped the assassination would impress the actress Jodie Foster.

Outside the Hilton, bystanders, police officers and Secret Service agents wrestled Hinckley to the ground and arrested him. He got off six shots from the .22-caliber Rohm RG-14 revolver, which he had bought at a pawn shop in Dallas for $29.

Brady, the first person hit, was struck above the left eye. Reagan was hit by a bullet that ricocheted off the limousine. Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty were also injured. Brady, Reagan and McCarthy were taken to George Washington University Hospital. Delahanty was taken to Washington Hospital Center, which is now known as MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

"I still remember vividly that day," Nancy Reagan said in a statement after Brady's death, "when Sarah and I sat together in a tiny room near the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital, trying to comfort each other while we both were gripped with unspeakable fear. The bond we established then was unlike any other."

The bullet that entered Brady's head shattered into more than two dozen fragments, with several penetrating his brain.

His condition was so dire that Secret Service agents at the hospital reported erroneously to their superiors that the press secretary had died. CBS, NBC and ABC reported the news — later retracted — while delivering updates on the president.

Brady was not dead, but he was close.

Neurosurgeon Arthur Kobrine recalled telling the president's personal physician about Brady: "It's a terrible injury. I don't think he has a chance. I don't think he's going to make it, but I think we should try."

Brady came through surgery well, but the road ahead was punctuated by dramatic ups and downs. In the next several months, he underwent two surgeries to halt leaks of spinal fluid from his cranial cavity and another operation for a pulmonary embolism and had epileptic seizures, pneumonia and persistent fevers.

He was discharged from the hospital in time for Thanksgiving but needed continual nursing care at home and had to undergo extensive outpatient physical therapy.

On the first anniversary of the shooting, he was readmitted to GWU Hospital for treatment of a blood clot in his left leg, which had been partially paralyzed, along with his left arm. He required the use of a wheelchair.