“A hostage situation”—that’s what the cops are calling it—has James Brady rolling rapidly in his wheelchair through the dimly lit third-floor corridor of the Capitol building. At his side—tight-lipped, nervous about being late for the showdown—is his wife, Sarah. They’re heading toward Room 313, the Rules Committee chamber, on a rescue mission.
It’s a mission of particular urgency for the Bradys. A victory they’ve worked toward for years, a gun-control fight they felt they were on the verge of winning, now suddenly seems about to slip from their grasp. There are lives at stake, they believe, out in the bullet-ridden streets. But there’s also something at stake in their own lives: redemption, you could call it, some kind of symbolic recompense—redemptive meaning for that moment nearly a decade ago when a bullet headed for the president tore through Jim Brady’s brain.
It would hardly seem an even match on the face of it, “the Brady Bunch’’ (as the N.R.A. newsletter derisively calls them) versus the Evil Empire.
It’s their bill, the so-called Brady Bill, that’s being held hostage. Bottled up by the Speaker of the House and his minions on the House Rules Committee before it can get to the House floor for a vote. In deference—the Bradys believe—to the all-pervasive congressional fear of the gun lobby, the powerful National Rifle Association, the awesome colossus that Jim Brady cheerfully calls ‘‘the Evil Empire.”
For a time this year, the Bradys seemed to have the Empire on the run. In July, they beat it in the Senate, which passed an assault-weapons ban the Bradys had fought hard for. And now, in late September, they’re confident they’ve got the votes to beat it in the House, to pass the Brady Bill, which would establish a nationwide seven-day waiting period between the purchase of a handgun and the time the buyer could take possession of it. A period designed to give police the chance to screen out gun buyers with felony records or mental-incompetency judgments—and to give the hot-blooded impulse to murder a chance to cool off.
But having the votes and getting a vote are not the same thing. And suddenly, with time running out in the last legislative session of the 101st Congress, the Brady Bill has disappeared from the congressional agenda, held hostage somewhere in legislative hell. The Empire, it seems, has struck back.
It would hardly seem an even match on the face of it, “the Brady Bunch’’ (as the N.R.A. newsletter derisively calls them) versus the Evil Empire. As I accompany the Bradys on their dash to the crucial Rules Committee session, I’m struck by how fragile-seeming a pair they are to be going up against the gun lobby. She’s a tough-minded but somewhat delicate-looking bleached-blonde Republican housewife turned crusader—adroit but still a bit uncomfortable in her public-figure role. He’s half paralyzed, mostly wheelchair-bound, with some lingering speech and memory problems caused by residual bullet damage to his brain. Their Handgun Control, Inc. (H.C.I.), lobby has an annual budget of less than $6 million; the N.R.A. has $70 million in annual funding ($17 million of which goes to lobbying efforts)—and an intimidating reputation for punishing its political enemies. “They’re like a SWAT team of trained killers,’’ Jim Brady tells me. “If they say they’re gonna get you, they get you.”
Fighting this N.R.A.-fear factor has been the biggest battle the Bradys have faced in their gun-control campaign. But things seemed to be shifting their way in the last couple of years. In 1988 the Brady Bill lost, 228-182, in a House floor vote. But this year—with the sound of gunfire growing louder in the streets, with inner-city infants being almost routinely cut down by stray bullets, with impressive support from a phalanx of police and law-enforcement organizations—they think they’ve turned around enough votes to win. If their bill doesn’t get throttled on the sly.
Which, they fear, is about to happen in the Rules Committee. “I think they cut a deal,” Sarah Brady says flatly. “The only chance we have for a vote before the session ends is if the Rules Committee agrees to allow the Brady Bill to be attached to the Omnibus Anti-Crime Bill as an amendment.” But House Speaker Tom Foley—a onetime N.R.A. Person of the Month—controls the Rules Committee, and, Sarah says, “I think he’s privately pledged to the N.R.A. that he’s not gonna let it out of committee.” Foley’s press secretary says, “I’m not aware of [a deal] at all,” insists that the budget-crisis legislative traffic jam is what’s causing the Speaker to block the Brady Bill. The N.R.A.’s Washington spokesman Wayne LaPierre says “there is no deal.”
If a deal is going to go down this afternoon in the Rules Committee, the Bradys aren’t going to allow their bill to be executed quietly, to die in silence.
But the cops aren’t buying that. Already, the Bradys’ cop-lobby allies—the Law Enforcement Steering Committee, which represents 400,000 police chiefs, state troopers, sheriffs, and patrolmen—have denounced the Speaker, called on him to “release the hostage” Brady Bill. A few minutes from now the Rules Committee is scheduled to vote on whether to release it or, in effect, snuff its life out.
Earlier today, as they were preparing to set out for the showdown, I asked Jim Brady just what he planned to do when he got to the Rules Committee chamber.
Brady stuck out his one good hand, pointed it like a gun.
“I’ll say, ‘Stick ‘em up!’ ” he said, grinning. “That’s the kind of language they’re used to hearing. I’ll talk to them in a way the N.R.A. will understand. Come in with an assault weapon and say, ‘Get on the floor, put your hands out…’”
He’s not packing a pistol, of course. His real weapon today is his own body. If a deal is going to go down this afternoon in the Rules Committee, the Bradys aren’t going to allow their bill to be executed quietly, to die in silence. The committee members are going to have to face the half-paralyzed, wheelchair-bound James Brady and—embodied in his person—the thousands of other victims of handgun violence. If they’re going to do it, it will have to be over their dead bodies.
The Rules Committee hearing room is packed to the walls this afternoon, for what is purportedly just a procedural matter.
Jim’s wheelchair is positioned right on the center aisle, which leads up to the semicircular bank of committee seats. Before the session convenes, a number of committee members come over and pay their respects to the Bradys. Many in Congress know Jim from the years he spent as a political operative who worked the Hill, remember him as an exuberantly physical guy known as “the Bear.” (One partisan Democrat described Brady to me admiringly as “the only real human being in the first Reagan administration. “) He’s one of them. But once the gavel falls it becomes clear that there is going to be no special deference shown to the Brady Bill or the Brady presence.
Things get rough right off, when Gerry Solomon, an N.R.A. stalwart on the Rules Committee, launches a preemptive attack on gun-control legislation, lobbing in the name Ted Kennedy like an incendiary grenade. He tosses it at Dan Rostenkowski, the powerful Ways and Means Committee chairman, who’s appearing on behalf of proposed amendments to ban domestic production of assault weapons, semi-automatic guns of the sort used in the Stockton-schoolyard massacre and increasingly favored, the cop lobbies say, by crack gangs.
The N.R.A. has been fighting this ban tooth and nail. Wayne LaPierre contends, first, that gangs don’t really use these weapons, it’s a media-created myth, and, second, that “so-called assault weapons” are only “cosmetically” different from the kind of rifles used by millions of American hunters. The bills under consideration would, the N.R.A. maintains, deny “law-abiding citizens”—hunters, collectors, sportsmen—their constitutional right to own them.
As soon as Rostenkowski finishes speaking, Solomon, a Republican from upstate New York, begins the assault.
“I came to Washington twelve years ago to stop Teddy Kennedy from taking away my guns,” he thunders at the Ways and Means chairman.
“How’d ya do?” Rostenkowski asks, grinning impishly to laughter in the chamber conjured up by the image of the portly senior senator from Massachusetts invading the congressman’s home to seize his personal assault rifle.
Which seems pretty much the image Representative Solomon has in mind. He begins talking about his wife, living “alone up in the Adirondacks” while he’s away in Washington serving the public. Paints a picture of his spouse imperiled in a little cottage in the deep dark woods, alone except for her guns.
“She needs those guns to defend herself,” he declares, “and nobody’s gonna take them away from her.”
Again savoring the moment, Rostenkowski says amiably, “Well, for the congressman’s sake, I hope he doesn’t come home late at night without warning his wife ahead of time…”
The recent history of gun control is inextricable from the recent history of assassinations.
First, there was John F. Kennedy. An N.R.A. member himself, he was shot dead (according to the Warren Report) by a rifle Lee Harvey Oswald purchased through a mail-order ad in The American Rifleman—the official N.R.A. magazine.
“They’re like a SWAT team of trained killers,” Jim Brady says of the N.R.A.
It took five years and the assassination of another Kennedy, along with the killing of Martin Luther King Jr., to get any kind of gun-control legislation through Congress. The 1968 Gun Control Act—fought bitterly and substantially weakened by the N.R.A.—banned for the first time the mail-order sale of guns, set up a system of licensing and inspection of firearm dealers, and prohibited licensed dealers from selling guns to convicted felons, fugitives from justice, and officially adjudicated mental incompetents. However, under the 1968 bill, all the criminal or lunatic had to do to evade the law was check a box on his purchase form saying he was not a criminal or lunatic, and display identification proving he was a resident of the state in which he was purchasing his weapon.
This weakness of the 1968 legislation—the weakness the Brady Bill purports to address—was demonstrated by John Hinckley’s assassination attempt. Hinckley bought the gun with which he shot Reagan and Brady in a Dallas pawnshop, using a Texas driver’s license to prove he was a Texas resident when in fact his legal residence was then Colorado. (The N.R.A.’s LaPierre insists the Brady Bill screening would not have caught Hinckley; Sarah Brady insists a license check would have.)
But even after Hinckley shot the president and his press secretary with a twenty-nine-dollar pistol in March 1981, efforts to enact stricter controls on handguns (which figure in some 9,200 murders, 12,100 rapes, 210,000 robberies, and 407,600 assaults annually) foundered repeatedly because the N.R.A. had become such a fearsome lobbying powerhouse.
The secret of the N.R.A.’s success was no secret at all. It was the gun lobby’s willingness—and ability—to punish its enemies. It was something the N.R.A. demonstrated quite graphically shortly after it lost the 1968 Gun Control Act fight—with a savage, exemplary revenge campaign in 1970 against Maryland senator Joseph Tydings, a Bobby Kennedy ally who’d voted for the 1968 bill. The pro-gun forces mounted an all-media ad blitz against Tydings, which, not coincidentally, ran heavily on neighboring Washington radio and TV stations and in D.C. newspapers. A captive audience of nervous incumbents drew the obvious conclusion when the once popular Tydings was swept out of office largely on the strength of the single-issue attack.
For the next fifteen years the N.R.A. reigned supreme, brushing aside all federal and most state attempts to enact any kind of gun law, shrewdly changing the terms of the debate over gun control, convincing voters and politicians that “guns don’t kill people— people kill people,” that “when you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns,” and that “America doesn’t have a gun problem, it has a crime problem.” The solution, argues LaPierre, is to lock up gun-carrying criminals longer, rather than make it difficult for honest citizens to defend themselves.
Most recently the N.R.A. has adopted the rhetoric of the prochoice movement and attacked gun laws as an attempt to interfere with a woman’s right to choose how to defend herself.
Not content with having defeated all new legislation since 1968, the N.R.A. set out in the late seventies to reverse the 1968 gun-control statute. And that brought trouble, more trouble than it had bargained for. Because it was the rollback effort that brought Sarah Brady into the fray, a nemesis far more effective than, if not as scary as, Ted Kennedy.
“They’re like a SWAT team of trained killers,” Jim Brady says of the N.R.A.
She didn’t grow up to be a “gun grabber,” as the N.R.A. calls her and Ted Kennedy. As the daughter of an old-school F.B.I. agent who packed a pistol all his life, Sarah Brady never had what the N.R.A. calls “the liberal anti-gun mentality.” She grew up in a conservative Virginia suburb and was steeped in Old Dominion values at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Which left her a legacy of antebellum gentility, at home with white gloves and Colonial china, and slightly ill at ease with—even occasionally, affectionately appalled at—her husband’s midwest frat-boy, bull-in-the-china-shop style.
When I ask her about William and Mary she’s quick to point out that despite its antebellum rep “Williamsburg was at the forefront of the Revolutionary movement, so there’s a tradition there of breaking with tradition, of going out to change the world, not always accepting the way things are done. That there are proper other ways.” “Proper” may be the key word for her. Sarah Brady: proper rebel.
Guns in Virginia have always been associated with the primal virtues: the liberty Virginia colonists took up arms to fight for; the “right to bear arms” Virginians Jefferson and Madison included in the Bill of Rights’ Second Amendment; the father-son bonding of the hunting trip.
But the guns of Virginia tradition were long guns. Not pawnshop handguns. Years before John Hinckley shot her husband with a pawnshop revolver, Sarah Brady had a close friend blown away by a handgun.
It happened in 1971, back when she and Jim had just begun dating; it happened to a woman they double-dated with. At the time, Sarah was a young career woman working in the Capitol Hill office of a Colorado congressman. Jim was then a divorced father struggling heroically to put his Don Juan days behind him.
Sarah didn’t mention the incident the first time we spoke. It was Jim who suggested I ask her about it. When I did, I got the impression the memory is still disturbing to Sarah.
Lighting one of the many cigarettes that have given her voice an attractively husky, Lauren Bacall tough-broad timbre, and inhaling deeply, Sarah tells about the fate of a close friend and congressional-office co-worker.
“Janet lived over in Maryland and her boyfriend had given her a handgun for self-protection. One day they got into an argument and the gun was lying there and Janet said, ‘If you feel that way toward me, why don’t you shoot me?’ And he picked up the gun and shot her and killed her. ‘ ‘
This incident has led Sarah to be particularly skeptical of the N.R.A.’s recent efforts to cite a woman’s right to choose as an argument against handgun laws.
“They’re trying to sell guns to women using emotionalism and scare tactics.”
“Have you seen the rapist ad?” she asks me. She summons up a copy. The ad features a scary-looking guy wearing a stocking mask on his head and an obscene leer on his face. The headline poses this philosophic query:
SHOULD YOU SHOOT A RAPIST BEFORE HE CUTS YOUR THROAT?
Don’t own a firearm if you choose not to. But never let anyone deny or delay your constitutional freedom to make that choice.
Sarah speaks of this ad with special distaste: “They’re trying to sell guns to women using emotionalism and scare tactics.”
This distrust of “emotionalism” is a hallmark of Sarah Brady’s character. After Janet’s death, Sarah had gotten involved in working for a Saturday-night-special ban (legislation the N.R.A. defeated in the early seventies). But, curiously, after her husband was shot with a Saturday-night special, she hesitated some time before jumping into the issue again—because it would be based on her own victimhood. In fact, she turned down her first opportunity to join the battle against the N.R.A.
“Back in 1982 there was a handgun-control initiative on the California ballot,” she says. “And they asked me to come out and campaign for it.” She said no.
“In a way, I kind of wanted to get involved,” she recalls, “but I thought, That’s a California initiative—if I get involved, it’s going to look like an emotional appeal … just a victim from some other state … and that would just look highly emotional, and I thought maybe it wasn’t right to do that just then.”
She’s not an unemotional person—every account of her crucial role in Jim’s recovery refutes that—but she has about her a kind of cool dignity verging on hauteur that serves as a protective shell, and precludes public displays of emotion.
It’s her distaste for emotionalism that makes her particularly resentful of any insinuation that she’s using her victimhood rather than her reason to plead her case. She’s particularly sensitive to N.R.A. imputations that the Brady Bunch is “tragedy-mongering” and that she’s being used as a “tool” of others to arouse emotion on behalf of gun laws.
“Trying to talk reason to the N.R.A. is like barking up a dead dog’s butt.”
“Did you ask Jim about that?” Sarah asks me. “First they said I was a tool of the handgun-control people; now they’re saying I’m using Jim as my tool.” She laughs. “Sometimes I wish I could manipulate him a little more.”
In fact, of the two of them, she’s the soft-spoken rationalist; Jim is more the firebrand who’s not hesitant about flinging the incendiary phrase into the dialogue.
He was the one who went up to Capitol Hill last year and called congressmen “gutless” and “cowardly lions” for cowering before the N.R.A. Denounced them for “pander[ing] to the special-interest groups that whine about a little inconvenience [like a waiting period] and other such lamebrain nonsense.” Every day, he told the senators, “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. … I guess I’m paying for their ‘convenience.’”
The N.R.A. calls the Brady Bill “a hoax,” claiming it won’t solve the handgun-crime problem.
Jim’s the one who told me, at a congressional reception a few evenings ago, “Trying to talk reason to the N.R.A. is like barking up a dead dog’s butt.”
When I ask Sarah, however, what kind of language she uses when she lobbies congressmen, whether she confronts them with their timidity in the face of the Evil Empire, she calmly puffs on her cigarette, raises her eyebrows slightly at Jim’s indiscreet candor, and smoothly avers, “We would never insinuate that….No congressman wants to be accused of being afraid of a lobby. Jim can be,” she adds, choosing her words delicately, “more strident than me.”
Her idea of an explosive epithet—one she frequently uses when I put the N.R.A.’s counterarguments to her—is “Poppycock!”
It took another near tragedy—this one involving her son—to finally propel her into the gun war for good.
It clearly was an emotional turning point for a woman who’d already seen her husband’s head shattered by a bullet.
“Back in 1984, we were out visiting in Illinois in my husband’s hometown.” She took a ride in a friend’s pickup truck with her then five-year-old son, Scott.
There was a toy gun in the front seat. Or so she thought.
“Scott hopped in first and picked this gun up, and I said, ‘Scott, don’t even point a toy at anyone,’ and it dawned on me what it was …it was a fully loaded little .22. I was just furious that anyone would be that careless to leave the gun out. Then I got back to Washington, and it wasn’t long after that I read about the Senate going to vote on the McClure-Volkmer Bill, I read about what McClure-Volkmer was. And so I called Handgun Control and said, ‘Can I do anything to help?’ And they said, ‘Funny that you called…’”
“What McClure-Volkmer was” was the N.R.A. at the height of its legislative supremacy pushing a bill that would have rolled back the one congressional defeat it had suffered—the 1968 Gun Control Act. In the original version, Sarah Brady says, McClure-Volkmer would have made the mail-order sale of handguns legal again, and weakened the mechanism then in force to inspect firearm dealers. (The N.R.A. insists that mail-order handguns were never part of the bill. And that McClure-Volkmer was really intended, as LaPierre says, “to refocus gun-control laws on violent criminals, not honest gun dealers and gun buyers.”)
Handgun Control, Inc., was at the time trying to stir up alarm over this, without much hope of success. H.C.I. had been founded in 1974 by Pete Shields, a man whose son had been shot by San Francisco’s “Zebra” serial killers. Known on the Hill as a “victims’ lobby,” H.C.I. was earnest, impassioned, and underfunded, on a decade-long losing streak, when Sarah Brady called.
“The Handgun Control people hand-delivered a copy of the draft of McClure-Volkmer and I looked it over and, boy, was I outraged,” she recalls. “The last thing we needed to do was get rid of the 1968 bill. I said, ‘We’ve got to dosomething about this.’ “ And she did.
The first thing she did, though, proper even in her rage, was pick up the phone and call the N.R.A. to do its lobbyists the courtesy of notifying them that she was coming to kick butt.
I heard one of her aides describe the call, but I have to pry it out of her.
“Is it true you called the N.R.A. headquarters and told them you were going to beat them on this issue?”
She laughs. “I have to tell the truth. Yes. I’m not proud of it.”
“What did you actually say?”
“I just said, ‘Shame on you! I’m gonna make it my life’s ambition to see that we get some decent gun laws. I think you’re bad, bad, bad… ‘ Something like that. I can’t imagine what they made of it.”
“Didn’t people tell you it was a lost cause, taking on the N.R.A.?” I ask Sarah.
“A lot of people did, yes. A lot of our friends were press people who’d been around a long time and they just felt they’d seen it [gun-control legislation] go down so many times there was just no hope.”
But beneath Sarah’s surface gentility there is a kind of steely tenacity that makes her a natural as a lobbyist.
Her husband calls her “the raccoon” and explains her lobbying success by saying, “She perseveres. Have you ever seen a raccoon give up on anything? If a representative turns her down, she’ll go up the street, stand on the comer till she’s thought of ten more arguments to come back at him with. If he still won’t listen, she’ll fly to his district, catch him in his office, say, ‘Hi! I’m here, let’s talk some more.’ “
“This nickname, ‘raccoon,’ Jim has for you—is it because of your tenacity?” I ask Sarah.
“Not really,” she says, laughing. “It’s because I look like one. See, I have dark circles under my eyes. I’ve always had them. I look in the mirror and I see a raccoon.”
But she concedes she knows how to keep the pressure on, she does keep coming back.
“There was one congressman who accused me of haunting him,” she says. “I shouldn’t tell you his name, but he told me he’d never forget it back in 1988 when he was leaving the Republican cloakroom to head for the floor to vote on the Brady Bill. I was waiting outside the cloakroom door.” She fixed him with a look. “I told him, ‘I’m counting on you.’ And he wasn’t with us on that vote. But he said that that haunted him later. He’s with us this year.”
That look: I’ve seen glimpses of it, particularly when she’s discussing certain cowardly lions in Congress who’ve disappointed her. It’s a subtle but profound shift of expression, eyebrows raised a bit to indicate a kind of disappointment, lips pursed a bit with a hint of patrician dismay at the moral puniness being displayed, the failure to do the right—no, the proper—thing.
Of course, she brought more than The Look to the lobbying process. One of the first things she did when she joined the 1985 fight over the N.R.A.’s rollback bill was to help forge an alliance with the newly militant cop lobbies. Organizations such as the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Troopers Coalition, the International Association of Chiefs of Police have been incensed by the N.R.A.’s intransigence on a number of gun-control issues the cops consider matters of life and death, so-called cop-killer bullets and plastic guns among them. (Wayne LaPierre argues, fairly persuasively in the case of cop-killer bullets, that the N.R.A. never “backed” bullets meant to pierce cops’ flak jackets, as one Brady ad claims. Less persuasively, he maintains that the cop lobbies don’t represent rank-and-file policemen, who, he says, dispute the efficacy of gun bans.)
“We were outraged, the cops were outraged, we decided to put our outrage together,” Sarah says of the police alliance she helped cement.
Then together they took on the N.R.A.’s rollback effort.
“You did win some small victories in that fight, didn’t you?” I ask her.
She bristles at the diminutive: “Actually, we took the whole thing as a big victory,” she says. “We got everything. Not only no weakening of the handgun law, but we also got a ban on machine guns,” she says proudly.
She liked the taste of battle. “Once I was in that fight, I was in it for good. That was really fun. They didn’t get a damn thing. [The N.R.A.] lost everything they wanted.” (“She’s exaggerating,” an N.R.A. spokesman insists. “There was only one minor provision taken out.”)
At this point, Sarah was still going it alone. Her husband didn’t oppose her efforts, but he kept his distance from them. First of all, he was still going through the protracted ordeal of recovery from his head wound. In addition, President Reagan had kept him on in the—largely titular—role of press secretary, and because he was an official of the pro-N.R.A. Reagan administration, even his wife’s involvement was potentially embarrassing to his presidential benefactor.
Besides all that, in the beginning at least, Jim had a different kind of gut reaction to the gun question from Sarah’s. His first priority was to make sure he had one.
According to the 1987 biography of Brady (Thumbs Up, by Mollie Dickenson), Jim was preoccupied with the notion that John Hinckley would somehow get out and come after him, before lighting out after Jodie Foster. Brady wanted to make sure he had a gun to greet Hinckley with.
I ask Sarah Brady about the book’s account of her husband’s preoccupation with having a gun.
“That sounds like something Jim might have said in those days,’’ she tells me. “I wonder what he would say now. You’d have to ask him.”
Later I do ask Brady.
“Was it true you wanted to get a gun to protect yourself against Hinckley?”
“I had a gun,” he says simply.
Then he adds, “I grew up in southern Illinois and we all had guns there. Hunting ducks, pheasant, quail.”
In other words, he had a long gun, a hunting rifle.
“The Brady Bill has nothing to do with hunting,” he reminds me. “Doesn’t touch long guns.”
Of course, these weren’t the only factors preventing Jim Brady from joining his wife on the gun-war front. His struggle to recover was more painful and prolonged than he and Sarah could have imagined. For years he was beset by seizures, unremitting pain, and involuntary “wailing,” all caused by a bullet Hinckley meant for the president.
It wasn’t until 1985, four years after the shooting, that he surmounted the recurrent crises and setbacks. It was then that Brady learned he could—once assisted into the saddle—again enjoy his love of horseback riding. He found that the riding process helped his brain develop the renewed neural pathways that raised the level of his motor control. And it did wonders for his psyche by giving him moments of release from the tormenting physical imprisonment he felt in his chair.
Three years after he returned to riding horses he went public with his own guncontrol activism—riding to the rescue of the Maryland Saturday-night-special law.
In the spring of 1988 the Maryland legislature passed a bill outlawing the manufacture and sale of Saturday-night specials, the cheap, concealable street guns that are the common currency of urban crime—and useless for almost any other purpose. (The N.R.A.’s LaPierre argues that, in fact, their cheapness makes these guns the self-defense weapon of choice for the honest urban poor.) The night after the Maryland bill—which Sarah Brady had been campaigning for— became law, Jim Brady was seen in news footage at Sarah’s side, celebrating the victory. Despite the fact that he was still officially part of the Reagan White House, he jubilantly toasted the historic victory over the N.R.A. with his trademark salutation: “Thumbs up for Maryland,” he said. It was that night he first called the N.R.A. “the Evil Empire.”
It didn’t take long for the Empire to strike back. The N.R.A. marshaled its forces behind a petition drive to get the new law wiped off the books. The gun lobby proceeded to pour more than $6 million into a massive blitz to win the repeal vote.
It’s clear Brady relishes waging this David and Goliath struggle, or—to mix epic metaphors—his Obi-Wan Kenobi role in the battle against the Evil Empire.
For years Brady was beset by seizures, unremitting pain, and involuntary “wailing,” all caused by a bullet Hinckley meant for the president.
Against that, Handgun Control mustered little more than three-quarters of a million dollars—and both Bradys. After a bruising campaign, the repeal was defeated. They’d beaten the gun lobby 58 percent to 42 percent and the law stayed on the books.
“We beat their asses bad,” Brady says, smiling.
It’s clear Brady relishes waging this David and Goliath struggle, or—to mix epic metaphors—his Obi-Wan Kenobi role in the battle against the Evil Empire. It’s clearly been therapeutic for him, the final step in his recovery.
Although his head injury has left Brady with occasional slurred speech and short-term-memory problems, he’s still got his old shrewdness and wit. When, for instance, I asked him what he’d say to Charlton Heston—who’s become the N.R.A.’s celebrity spear-carrier in its image-rebuilding “I’m the N.R.A.” ad campaign—Brady grinned and said, “Heston? Well, I wouldn’t challenge him to a chariot race…” (Reached in London, Heston expressed sympathy for Brady’s condition, but deplored attempts to hinder him and other “law-abiding citizens” from buying the guns of their choice: “I’m sure Jim Brady doesn’t consider me and my dozen or so firearms a threat,” he said. “The Brady Bill would not have stopped John Hinckley.”)
But however much Brady has recovered his mental sharpness, he’s had to struggle against feelings of powerlessness that are more than merely physical. In the same way his return to horseback riding represented a major milestone in Brady’s physical recovery, his return to political combat, taking on the N.R.A. and winning that upset victory, helped him surmount the sense of psychological powerlessness he suffered from. He’s turned his wheelchair into a chariot.
And when he rolled that chariot into a Senate-judiciary-subcommittee hearing room in 1989 and delivered his electrifying frontal assault on the gun lobby and the “cowardly lions” who did its bidding, many thought he had turned the tide on gun control in Congress. In doing so, Brady is actually having a more powerful impact on the world now than he did when he was a big shot at the White House but still a spokesman for someone else.
I asked Brady about that someone else: Ronald Reagan.
I asked Brady if he’d been able to get Reagan to endorse the Brady Bill. Strangely, this was one case in which Brady seemed not to—or chose not to—understand my question. He began talking about Reagan fondly, but only in the context of the rumor that the ex-president will play himself in the forthcoming David Puttnam-produced HBO film about the Bradys. (Beau Bridges is playing Jim, Joan Allen is playing Sarah; Reagan will not play Reagan, says Puttnam.)
When I finally pressed Jim about whether Reagan, a lifetime N.R.A. member and gun-control opponent, had come out for the Brady Bill, Jim said, “I haven’t asked him to, no.”
When Reagan left office, Jim Brady left the White House payroll and became vice-chairman of the National Organization on Disability, a demanding job that didn’t permit him time for an official function at Sarah’s Handgun Control, Inc., organization. But he’s put his body and his voice at its service. And at Sarah’s side for the often brutal exchanges with the N.R.A. “It’s been thrilling to have my husband stand up with me,’’ she says.
Down in Washington that week I talked to a number of gunshot victims, in addition to family members of those who had been shot to death. They were there at the Bradys’ congressional reception; they were there besieging Speaker Foley’s office with sacks of petitions demanding he free the hostage Brady Bill.
After a while I noticed that there was one thing the survivors all made a point of saying. Something about the way their activism in the gun-control movement rescued them from the oppressive meaninglessness of their particular tragedy. It may be there’s something peculiar to a gunshot wound, something about the explosive bolt-from-the-blue inexplicableness of most shootings, that leaves its victims and survivors inconsolable unless they can find some meaning in the random cruelty of their fate.
And so they’d say to me, “I knew there had to be a meaning to what happened— that’s why I got involved in this fight.” “I knew there had to be a purpose for what happened to me: maybe other lives can be saved.”
I had a feeling this might be true for Jim. But not for Sarah. At least, she won’t admit to it.
“I know what you mean,” she tells me when I recount what the other victims and survivors said. “I’ve heard that, too. But, for me, I don’t know if that’s right. I did not get involved immediately. I waited four or five years before I did. By that time I’d dealt with what happened. I’d grieved, gotten over it. My decision to get involved was a conscious effort to make a change. I had already dealt with the trauma and loss of Jim’s shooting.”
Later she returns to the subject, perhaps protesting a bit too much: “Getting involved was not an action that was just precipitated by emotionalism for me.” But the N.R.A. contends that the Brady Bill is an emotional, misguided response to the crime problem, “a hoax…a marketing issue,” says Wayne LaPierre. It won’t solve the problem of handgun crime, he claims, because real criminals buy guns from underworld sources, not licensed dealers. The Bradys dispute that, noting that state handgun waiting-period laws have prevented tens of thousands of felons from making gun buys in the last ten years. (The N.R.A. has recently come out in favor of the “instant check” principle, whereby crime records would be checked at the point of purchase if and when a data base became nationally available.)
The Brady Bunch has won some significant victories since the Maryland upset. They’ve split the N.R.A. from its traditional alliance with law-enforcement lobbying groups; they’ve won several state legislative victories (California and New Jersey passed assault-weapons bans; several other states have passed Brady Bill-type laws for handgun sales).
And then, last summer, the Senate gave the Brady forces and their cop-lobby allies their biggest victory yet: on May 23, 1990, after a bitterly contested floor vote, the Senate passed by a vote of 50 to 49 the DeConcini Bill, to ban domestic production of assault weapons. (The House never got to vote on it.)
If they haven’t got the N.R.A. on the run, they’ve clearly gotten under its skin. Evidence of that can be found in a recent N.R.A. newsletter, which features an anguished letter from a true believer lamenting the restrictions that would be placed on assault weapons by the Brady-backed DeConcini Bill. According to the letter writer, on the night of May 23, after the passage of the DeConcini Bill in the Senate, he personally witnessed the Bradys out in public, drinking champagne to celebrate the victory!
I mention this missive to Brady. “There was an angry letter about you in the N.R.A. newsletter.”
“Just one?” he says, grinning.
“It says you and Sarah were drinking champagne after the DeConcini vote.”
“Anything wrong with that?” he asks defiantly.
“How do you plan to celebrate if you win this one?” I ask him.
“There might be champagne involved again,” he says.
No champagne this afternoon. The mood is bitter, not bubbly.
“Stop kicking my cane,” Jim Brady growls at Sarah irritably.
“I’m not kicking your cane,” she replies, somewhat irritable herself.
Although Jim’s irritation is misdirected, it’s real enough. The cane is important to Jim Brady. With its help he’s finally able to walk, albeit with great difficulty. He’ll use it to propel himself in his wheelchair, employ it to gesture, express emotion, convey symbolically the vigor he no longer possesses physically. And—metaphorically—someone has kicked his cane. The House Rules Committee has kicked it out from under him.
The Brady Bunch has just left the Rules Committee chamber. They’re now grouped—Jim, Sarah, their chief Hill strategist, Gail Hoffman—glumly around a table in the nearly deserted members’ dining room of the House, two floors below the Rules chamber.
I’ve been following them and their efforts for a week now, and this is the first time I’ve seen a shadow of despair. They’re beginning to suspect that they’ve just been snookered by the committee and its puppet master, Speaker Foley.
Just when they were told that the fate of their bill would be decided, the committee took a sudden and mysterious indefinite adjournment. The reason given for the adjournment sounds fishy to the Bradys.
“They told us,” Sarah Brady tells me as she sips a Diet Coke and smokes a Marlboro Light, “that they wouldn’t be able to consider it, because they hadn’t received the actual text of the Crime Bill yet.”
Jim Brady snorts derisively, his antenna sensing what sounds to him like cynical double-talk. “What they mean is they haven’t received their orders from the Speaker yet.”
“They now say they won’t reconvene for another couple of hours,” Gail Hoffman says. “I don’t know if we should wait around.”
Jim Brady doesn’t think it’s worth it. He sees this as further evidence the fix is in from the Speaker’s office.
A couple of congressmen finishing a late lunch pass by the Bradys’ table and greet them warmly. One of them, California representative Leon Panetta, a Brady Bill co-sponsor, asks them, “What happened to your bill?’ ‘
“Good question,” says Jim Brady.
“I thought it was already on the schedule,” Panetta says, looking puzzled.
“We thought so, too, but it’s not,” Hoffman says. “They haven’t scheduled it yet. We’re alarmed.”
“Who should I call?” Panetta asks, looking concerned.
“Call the Speaker’s office,” Sarah tells him.
“I’ll do it now,” he says.
Meanwhile, another alarming cloud has appeared on the horizon. A last-minute N.R.A.-backed stratagem on the assault-weapons front has emerged: the “Kill American” amendment, as one Brady operative calls it. Officially it’s the Unsoeld amendment (named after Representative Jolene Unsoeld, Democrat of Washington), to prohibit domestic assembly of banned foreign firearms such as Uzis ”from imported parts.” Officially it’s “clarifying language” offered to a Crime Bill section that is supposed to implement President Bush’s executive order banning importation of Uzis, AK-47s, and other foreign military-style assault weapons. The Bradys and their cop-lobby allies contend that what the tricky alternative language of the Unsoeld amendment really does is substantially weaken, even gut, the Bush assault-weapons import ban. And bestows a potential market windfall on American gun manufacturers. Because the amendment tacitly, stealthily does something the original language would not do: permits the assembly of Uzi/AK47 look-alikes from American-made parts. Kill American.
The Bradys see this as another instance of Speaker Foley’s showing favoritism to the gun lobby: the late-starter Unsoeld measure never had to go through the legislative hurdles the Brady Bill did. In fact, they hear that the Rules Committee, in the final rewrite of the Crime Bill so mysteriously unavailable this afternoon, plugged the Unsoeld language right into the bill so that it won’t have to be voted on separately.
The sudden materialization of this stealth amendment is particularly shocking to them.
“It’s unconscionable,” Sarah Brady says. “What it says is that the Speaker’s been willing to do whatever the N.R.A. wanted him to.”
What it means in a larger sense—the Bradys believe—is that Congress is still acting as if the gun lobby held a gun to its head. Indeed, a Herblock cartoon in The Washington Post the following week pictured a smug, fat, cigar-smoking figure labeled “gun lobby” ensconced in Speaker Foley’s office with a forlorn-looking Jim Brady parked outside the door, cobwebs growing on his wheelchair. Clearly, however patiently and diligently the Bradys had won converts, built coalitions with the cop lobbies, played the legislative game properly, it hadn’t worked, it hadn’t been enough.
The Bradys and the cops were still ad hoc amateurs, compared with the N.R.A., at the game of high-pressure power-lobbying tactics. For one thing, they hadn’t yet demonstrated decisively that they, like the N.R.A., could punish their enemies.
As H.C.I.’s Susan Whitmore puts it, “After the 1986 vote on the McClure-Volkmer Bill, one congressman who we thought was with us and then voted with the N.R.A. told me, ‘The police will forgive and forget, but the N.R.A. won’t.’ People don’t feel our side has been willing to show that we can play that game, too.”
I think that, in the desperation of that moment in the empty dining room, with their hopes for the session deserting them, there emerged in the collective consciousness of the Brady Bunch the perception that they might have been playing the game a bit too properly. A perception that resulted in a kind of unspoken resolution: No more Mr. Nice Guy.
“You punish your enemies, don’t you?” I once asked the N.R.A.’s Wayne LaPierre.
“Yeah,” he said, “but who doesn’t in American politics today?”
The Brady Bunch—until now.
“This time we felt we had to show people we could take off the white gloves,” Susan Whitmore says.
So they decided to make an example of someone who’d crossed them. They decided to make an example of Representative Jolene Unsoeld, author of the “Kill American” amendment.
She was a logical target, but a controversial one. Logical because she’d done more than cross the gun-control forces, they felt, she’d double-crossed them. She’d voted for gun-control positions in the Washington state legislature; the Bradys thought she’d back their waiting-period bill. But, as a first-term congresswoman facing a tough re-election fight in a rural, pro-gun district, she adopted the N.R.A.’s fundamentalist stand on Second Amendment rights. Then she went even further, becoming in effect, the Bradys say, a cat’s-paw of the gun lobby: on September 11, she introduced her N.R.A.backed amendment. The very next day, it was subsequently revealed, her campaign committee received a $4,950 check from the N.R.A.’s political-action arm.
The Bradys decided this was too much. They decided to go for her throat. It was a difficult decision. Representative Unsoeld is a liberal Democrat, a major pro-choice activist in the House. She was facing a right-wing Republican opponent who was no liberal on gun control. They knew they’d take some flak from their liberal friends for going gunning for “Jolene.” But they felt they’d never muster the force to get a gun-control bill through Congress if they couldn’t demonstrate to the rest of the representatives that they had something to fear from the Bradys’ side.
And so they began with an air attack. A series of real hardball—almost vicious— attack ads on radio stations in Jolene Unsoeld’s district, south of Seattle:
You know the definition of a Washington, D.C., politician.. .Someone who takes a stand but then sells out to a special interest…for money. That’s what happened to your Representative Jolene Unsoeld.. .. She had a visit from some assault-weapon lobbyists.. .. She pocketed thousands of dollars in gun-PAC money. In return, Jolene Unsoeld sponsored the assault-weapon lobby’s bill to protect the manufacture of AK-47s right here in the U.S. The AK-47s used in the Stockton-schoolyard massacre…. The AK-47s drug dealers and hate groups want. Your representative, Jolene Unsoeld. Now just another Washington, D.C., politician.
Then the fireworks began. Unsoeld’s campaign manager implicitly threatened several radio stations with legal action if they continued to run the ads; several stations (not all) were intimidated into silence.
The Brady group hit back with a second wave of ads, which began, Your representative in Congress, Jolene Unsoeld, doesn’t want you to hear this…. Here are the facts…
This series went even further in implying Unsoeld had sold her soul for the N.R.A. PAC’S $4,950 check. Unsoeld called the link “baloney.” Her campaign manager told me the Bradys “were running a smear campaign—it was nasty stuff.”
An Unsoeld spokesman insisted to me that their amendment was designed only to “purify” the Crime Bill of “controversial” language so that the House could deal with domestic-assault-weapons restrictions separately from the body of the Crime Bill. He told me the specter of homegrown Uzis was “a market that doesn’t exist.” The Bradys insist that the Unsoeld language will create that market.
The Unsoeld attempt to suppress the ads ignited a fire storm of free media coverage for the Bradys, both locally and nationally. (Mary McGrory wrote a scathing column in The Washington Post, entitled “Gun Bills and Gun Molls.”) Politicians in Washington took notice of the Brady hardball. Back home Unsoeld was getting the worst of the media controversy in cartoons and editorials and was driven to make extreme statements advocating private ownership of bazookas and grenade launchers.
Clearly the Bradys had struck a nerve.
Unsoeld struck back at Sarah Brady. In a letter to her constituents on her gun-control positions, she claimed that at a meeting she’d had with Jim and Sarah Brady she’d “never experienced anything like the unprofessional and threatening technique used by Sarah Brady.’’ She likened Sarah Brady’s behavior to that of fanatics “who shrieked in my face.”
When I spoke to Sarah Brady about these developments on the final day of the congressional session, I could tell, despite her unflappable demeanor, that she was particularly annoyed at the imputation of emotionalism, even feminine hysteria, in the Unsoeld letter. In fact, she insisted nothing could be further from the truth.
“It was the most bizarre meeting I’ve ever had with any member of Congress,” she said. “We walked into her office and she was extremely defensive right away. Before we could say anything, she handed us a letter or memo explaining her position. She pointed at my nose and said, ‘How do you feel about a woman’s right to choose?’ and went into a tirade on Second Amendment rights. And I said, ‘That’s fine, but that has nothing to do with the Brady Bill.’ She’d bought it all, the N.R.A. line—hook, line, and sinker. Finally, I stood up and said, ‘I don’t think there’s any further reason to discuss this.’ It was just bizarre.”
Down in Washington the day before Congress adjourned, I asked Sarah to assess what had happened to her hopes for this session. Things had looked so promising, but when the smoke cleared, the N.R.A.—clearly no paper tiger—had won all the battles: the Brady Bill was kept from the floor, the assault-weapons ban the cops had lobbied so hard for never got to a vote, and the Unsoeld amendment was heading for the president’s signature. (In addition, a few days later Representative Unsoeld would win re-election.)
“We’re at the point of utter frustration,” Sarah said. “Here we were, with the votes to pass these bills. I’m irate because people are dying. Next year,” she said grimly, “we’re gonna have to get a little tougher, bring to account those people who are really responsible.” She named in particular Speaker Foley.
She and Jim have sent him a letter denouncing him for burying the Brady Bill and blessing the Unsoeld amendment.
“Never in our years of public service have we witnessed this kind of biased and inequitable treatment,” the Bradys wrote the Speaker. They called on him to schedule an early House vote on the Brady Bill so that it can pass before March 30, 1991, the tenth anniversary of the Hinckley shooting—symbolic redemption.
Sarah sounded genuinely bitter about Foley’s conduct: “He didn’t make one move that wasn’t just what the N.R.A. wanted.”
“So next year you’re going to hold his feet to the fire, or some part of him?”
“Well,” she said, “we don’t want to be vindictive and mean.”
“But you have to show people you punish your enemies the way the N.R.A. does, right?” I asked Sarah.
“I don’t think we’re punishing,” she said with characteristic distaste for the emotionalism of the word. “There are members we don’t want to be there anymore. We’d like to see them defeated.”
“Defeating them is punishing them, isn’t it?” I asked Sarah.
“I guess so,” she said, still reluctant to admit to a less-than-proper vindictiveness.
It’s clear she’s somewhat ambivalent about using N.R.A.-style tactics. Others are less ambivalent. “They tried to take some scalps, and they failed,” says one Unsoeld supporter. “They only went after vulnerable Democrats and they couldn’t pull it off.”
In the aftermath it seems they’ve refocused their attack on the strongest Democrat of all—Speaker Foley. A spokesman for Foley’s office insists he “will not be a permanent obstacle to House consideration of the Brady Bill. We expect it to happen early next session.”
Jim Brady isn’t willing to be content with pledges. He’s not reticent about how he plans to hold the Speaker’s feet to the fire in the next session. The last time I spoke to Jim we were on the steps of the Capitol, on the House side, not far from the Speaker’s office.
Gesturing toward Foley’s office, Jim Brady said, “We’re gonna be back. In January I’m gonna pitch a tent under the Speaker’s office. Gonna light a campfire. The smoke is gonna rise. He’s gonna feel the heat.”