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Jim Brady, Gun Reform—and a Breath of Fresh Air From the Parkland Students

The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School aren’t old enough to remember the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, which permanently disabled Press Secretary Jim Brady — but they are certainly carrying on Brady’s legacy.

On March 30, 1981, twenty-five-year-old John Hinckley, Jr. opened fire as President Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC. He fired off six shots, hitting Reagan and Brady, as well as a Secret Service Agent and a Washington police officer.

While all survived the shooting, Brady was left permanently disabled with a traumatic brain injury, and remained paralyzed on his right side until his death in 2016. His death would be ruled a homicide — 33 years after he was shot.

Jim and his wife Sarah lobbied for stricter handgun control and assault weapon restrictions. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, also known as the “Brady Bill” or “Brady Act,” was named in his honor. In 1996 Brady received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton, the highest civilian award in the United States.

President Reagan was a strong Republican, and learned first hand what gun violence can do: it doesn’t only kill people; it leaves survivors with life-long disabilities (such as TBI) and PTSD. Reagan and Brady were surrounded by FBI, Secret Service, and DC police officers — however good guys with guns weren’t enough to protect them from a bad guy with a gun. Hinckley was able to legally purchase a handgun, even though he should have been on the prohibited purchaser list (under our current law) because of mental health.

The law at the time of the shooting relied on the person buying a gun to tell the truth: is he or she a felon or mentally ill? The Brady Law, adopted in 1993 and signed into law in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, required mandatory Federal background checks on US firearm sales, and imposed a five-day waiting period on purchases, until the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) system was implemented in 1998 (instant, computerized checks).

While the Brady Law has stopped about 2.5 million prohibited purchasers from getting guns since 1998, it is still not perfect. We don’t have a great definition of who should be prohibited from purchasing firearms, and currently it is mainly felons and those with diagnosed mental illness who are prohibited. Those with misdemeanors for violent crimes, for example, or domestic assault can still purchase guns. Those who are expelled from school for being dangerous or making threats can still purchase guns. Private sales in many states don’t require background checks; only purchases through a federally licensed dealer are mandated.

Paul Helmke, former president of the Brady Campaign and current professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, worked alongside Jim and Sarah for five years in Washington, DC. He told me, “I’m as hopeful on this issue as I have been in a long time. Our gun laws are weak in this country, and it’s disappointing to me that we don’t do something about it. I am feeling hopeful hearing these high school kids speak up so eloquently.”

He added, “I think something can happen. When we look at movements in history, it’s often the young people that lead the charge. These are high school kids that can speak up and be a voice.”

Helmke also mentioned that the Virginia Tech students spoke up after 32 people were massacred on campus in 2007; however, then they didn’t have the advantage of social media the way that the Florida kids do. The other advantages are: 1) this is an off-year election so the focus is on it right away, and 2) the shooter lived, which means there will be a continuing focus on this shooting with a criminal trial and court proceedings to help keep attention on the issue.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the Second Amendment. I’m a lawyer, I teach law. As Justice Scalia said in the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case of DC v Heller , this right, like most rights, is not ‘unlimited.’ You can have restrictions on who gets guns, how they’re sold, and what kinds of guns you can have. Anything short of a complete ban is presumably lawful according to the Supreme Court,” said Helmke.

He has three pieces of advice for the young people: 1) learn all about the issue because there are going to be people who know a lot more and will try to undermine you, 2) get active and do something: march, walk out, contact your legislatures, and get involved in elections and VOTE, 3) have patience, and realize that this isn’t going to get fixed overnight. This is going to take a long-term commitment.

I would like to add a fourth piece of advice: the haters are going to get loud and attack you relentlessly. I’ve been there myself and know how much it stings. In the wise words of Taylor Swift, you just gotta “shake it off.” Stand your ground, speak your truth, and never, EVER stop sharing your story!

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