The man walked directly to me in the restaurant and placed the business end of his pistol between my eyes. This stranger quickly became the most important person I had ever met. Police responded. A gun battle ensued, and the man was ultimately apprehended. And I'm not the only one. Four out of seven members of my immediate family have had a loaded firearm pointed at them with bad intentions.
On March 30, 1981, all Americans were in shock from the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. James Brady, Reagan's talented press secretary, was walking in front of the presidential party and took a bullet to the head. Reagan was gravely wounded.
Ten years later, I was offered the chance to play the title role in "Without Warning: The James Brady Story." My first order of business was to meet Brady and his family. But first came an invitation to watch Marlin Fitzwater, the press secretary then serving under President George H.W. Bush, in action. I excitedly took my seat in the press briefing room. This was a perfect chance to begin to step into the shoes of a highly complex and challenging job. Fitzwater entered and took his place at the podium, but before he fielded his first question, there was an interruption. All members of the press corps rose to their feet as James Brady himself wheeled into the room.
That's how I met the inspiring man they call "Bear." In the following months, I spent many hours with Jim, his wife, Sarah, and their son, Scott. This was a very positive, upbeat household, even with all the challenges they faced as Jim continued his long recovery. A brain trauma attacks you in a million ways. The fortitude and patience it demands are immense, and yet here was this resilient man, fighting his way back with such good humor and grace.
Jim and Sarah did not take the tragic event that changed their lives lightly. They made themselves catalysts for change, taking on leadership roles with the group Handgun Control Inc., later renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, to respond to the rapid proliferation of handguns in the United States. Thanks to their signature accomplishment, the Brady Law, more than 2 million prohibited gun purchases have been blocked since 1994.
Although the shooter from my story didn't pull the trigger, I was close enough to death by gunfire to understand, in a visceral way, the need to get guns out of the hands of criminals via background checks and to require those who buy them to learn proper gun safety. I lobbied with Jim at the Capitol for the banning of the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons. Jim told me I would be disappointed in many of the legendary senators and representatives I would meet. They would talk endlessly, saying nothing. And that's exactly what happened.
This was hard to take, considering that the purpose of our visit was to limit the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons, which seemed like such an obviously sensible reform, given all the terrible massacres that had occurred at schools and places of business across the country. Why would any civilian want a weapon that sprays bullets at such a rapid rate? Certainly not to use for hunting or target shooting.
Jim patiently explained that Washington was one of the great cities of the world, with fantastic food, culture and entertainment. The priority of most of the public servants was to keep their jobs at any cost, and thereby extend their stay in this wonderful city. They accomplished this by doing or saying nothing that was remotely controversial.
I have no problem with responsible gun ownership. I enjoyed hunting with my grandpa. I learned to respect and care for weapons during my service in the Coast Guard. But the nation we live in has a greater proliferation of firearms than any other country. No need to be the strongest, the quickest or the most cunning. Anyone can pick up a gun and become the toughest guy in the room.
Intelligent, courageous and fearless, with a ready wit, Jim Brady was a force for peace and common sense. His spirit will endure through his wife, his children and the millions of people he touched.