I still remember the day I talked to Sarah Brady about her long battle with the National Rifle Association over what has finally become known as the Brady bill.

"How about Ronald Reagan? How does he feel about your campaign for gun controls?"
"Well," Mrs. Brady said haltingly, "he's been a member of the NRA a long time."
She didn't need to say any more.

It says something about Reagan's sense of political loyalties that the former president never supported the bill. Not even the fact that one of the bullets fired by John W. Hinckley Jr. on March 30, 1981, nearly took Reagan's own life was enough to make Reagan turn on his conservative backers.

I think about that meeting with Mrs. Brady often. What brings it to mind so often is that her long and lonely battle always seemed so hopeless.

For her, it was a heart-rending battle. She lost many conservative friends who decided she was becoming radical and unreasonable about her stand on gun control. But she persisted and finally won.

In the end, not even the powerful Senator Robert Dole could stop the Congress from passing the bill fought so vociferously by the NRA and right-wing conservatives everywhere.

Jim Brady was the president's press secretary at the time of the shooting. He was a heavyset, witty man from Illinois who had moved up in the Reagan hierarchy even though Nancy Reagan thought he looked like an overweight police captain.

The two men were getting into the presidential limousine after a visit to a Washington, D.C., hospital when Hinckley opened fire on them.

Jim Brady was seriously wounded. He is still confined to a wheelchair and his speech remains halting.

"Do you remember the day Jim was shot?" I asked his wife.
Mrs. Brady shuddered slightly.
"I think that day is embedded in my memory forever. I watched it on television."
Actually, the first thing Sarah Brady remembers was that she was sitting on a sofa in her living room in Arlington, Virginia, getting ready to take her 2-year-old son, Scott, upstairs for a nap. Scott is now 14 years old.

"I remember hearing the announcement that some shots had been fired at the president but that, apparently, he had not been hit."
Then her phone rang.
"A friend of mine called and asked if I wanted her to come over to take care of Scott.

"I said, 'Why would you come take care of Scott?' She had already heard that Jim had been hit.

"So I hung up at once. We had a White House phone in our home. I picked it up and asked the operator: 'I just heard my husband's been shot. Is that true?'

"They told me to hang up for a moment and they'd get right back. Within 30 seconds, they called back to tell me it was true and that a White House car was on the way to take me to the hospital."
Sarah Brady leaned forward. She seemed to be actually reliving those moments as she spoke of them.

"By the time the car reached the house, I had seen the tape of the actual shooting on television," she said. "I was beside myself with fear and rage."
These last words were spoken with such great calm that it was apparent they took great effort.

"We had no real traffic until we got within two blocks of the hospital," she said. "I know I was supposed to go to the emergency-room entrance. But it would have taken half an hour to get through the huge mob of reporters gathered there.

"So I got out of the car and ran the last block. They ushered me right in and within minutes I was talking to Jim's doctor. That was just moments before they wheeled him into surgery. They were prepping Jim while his doctor briefed me. He said the operation might take as long as five hours. He was right.

"They gave me a private room and kept me insulated from everyone so I never heard that report that Jim had died that went out over the air while he was still on the operating table. Thank God, I never heard about that until later.

"But Jim's daughter, Misty, did. She was a student at Colorado State and left immediately by car for the Denver airport. In the cab radio, she heard the report that Jim had died."
It is now a dozen years later. Jim Brady is still confined to a wheelchair. His body has been broken in a way that can never be fixed. His family's life has been changed forever. They have lost friends. Their income is diminished.

Jim Brady will never be the man he was before being shot. His life has been changed for the worse and there is nothing anyone can do about it. The damage the bullet did to him is irrevocable.

It took seven years for the bill to work its way through Congress. No one expects that the new law will change things very much. The New York Times says that the bill at least demonstrates that politicians no longer dare to appear unresponsive to the anger of the voters about crime.

But Bob Corbin and his buddies at the National Rifle Association continue to tell you everyone must have the freedom to buy guns. They talk about it as an important part of our freedom.

This freedom has brought us to the point where there are 70 million handguns in the hands of Americans. Each year more than 140,000 of these weapons are stolen.

Strange, isn't it, that we regard guns so highly.

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Tom Fitzpatrick