Sometimes our heroes come from the most unlikely sources.
Until March 30, 1981, James Brady was more well known as the rumpled, balding, paunchy, funny, avuncular, self-effacing press secretary to President Ronald Reagan.
But over the course of two seconds — the time it took for John Hinckley to fire six rounds intended for the president from a cheap, $29 .22-caliber pistol purchased from a pawnshop — Brady became a genuine American hero and one of the early founding fathers of the nation's gun control movement.
Brady was caught in the line of fire as Reagan was making his way to the presidential limousine after a speech at a Washington hotel. Though gravely wounded, Reagan eventually made a full recovery, as did a Secret Service agent and a District of Columbia police officer who were also hit. Brady, only 41, was shot just above his right eye and would live with the consequences of Hinckley's twisted attempt to impress the actress Jodie Foster until his death days ago at 73.
Especially since the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the country has engaged in a long debate over gun control, with most efforts stymied by an intractable National Rifle Association and its obsessive-compulsive aversion to common sense no matter the body count.
Brady was a survivor and a symbol of America's seeming incapacity to address the insanity of our tepid gun laws. Though he suffered a catastrophic brain injury that paralyzed his left arm, crippled his left leg and impaired his short-term memory, Hinckley's aim did not still Brady's voice or his intellect.
Together with his wife, Sarah, the couple became the driving force in the creation of what would eventually become the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. And their efforts paid off in the 1990s with measures signed into law that created background checks for weapons sales, waiting periods to obtain a gun, and the restoration of the federal ban on the sale of assault weapons.
It is estimated that the laws passed because of the Bradys' efforts kept guns out of the hands of some 2 million people who failed background checks because of criminal records or a history of mental illness. That is no small accomplishment against an opponent like the NRA, which pretty much counts Congress as a wholly owned subsidiary.
But over time, many of the gains made by Brady and other gun control advocates have been slowly whittled away, especially the perfectly reasonable five-day waiting period before a gun purchase can be finalized. The NRA opposed the waiting period as an "inconvenience" to law-abiding purchasers of guns. Brady had another view.
"I need help getting out of bed, help taking a shower and help getting dressed, and — damn it — I need help going to the bathroom," Brady fumed. "I guess I'm paying for their 'convenience.' "
Yes, he was.
From his wheelchair, Brady proved to be a formidable force against the NRA's political clout and its irrational fear-mongering opposition to even the most modest proposals to protect society from the epidemic of rampant gun violence. He was the living embodiment representing the ease of how guns can be obtained and the bloody consequences of their use in the hands of malevolent people. Sadly, over Brady's last years the assault weapons ban was allowed to lapse by a feckless George W. Bush. Even in the wake of the horrific Newtown school shootings in 2012, which claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six school employees, Congress could not summon even the thinnest profile in courage against its NRA masters to pass a watered-down background check law.
Given the slow, debilitating effects his injuries took on his health over the years, Brady could have withdrawn from public life. He didn't. He continued to fight the good fight against the NRA and the forces of ignorance opposing sensible gun control proposals.
Brady was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1996. White House reporters now work in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. Those are wonderful tributes to a man whose appointment as press secretary was resisted by Nancy Reagan because she felt Brady was too unkempt and not telegenic enough for the job.
Not every hero has to look like Harrison Ford.
Indeed, we toss around the term hero rather cavalierly from movie stars to sports figures, all of whom could learn a thing or two about grace under literal fire and courage from the frumpy guy in the wheelchair.