James Brady (C), former White House press secretary for president Ronald Reagan, and his wife Sarah (3rd L) chat with journalists, June 16, 2009.
Photo by Mandel Ngan/Getty

Honoring Jim Brady’s legacy by finishing the job he started

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Pitted against what many deemed an unbeatable force, former White House Press Secretary Jim Brady won.

After becoming permanently disabled as a result of the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981, Jim embarked with his wife Sarah on a long and arduous fight to pass a federal background check bill on gun sales.

Seven years of painstaking work later, the bill was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993. That bill put into place the first national system of background checks on American gun purchases at licensed gun dealers and is responsible for saving countless American lives.

Over 2 million gun sales to felons, domestic abusers, and people suffering from dangerous mental illness have subsequently been blocked thanks to the Brady Background Check. The nation’s gun homicide rate has been cut in half in the two decades since the bill came into effect. 

Jim died this week at 73 – his death was officially ruled a homicide, the result of the bullet that nearly killed him in 1981 – but his passing should serve to rally Americans around a phrase that Sarah is particularly fond of: “Finish the job.” Finishing the job in this case refers to the importance of making sure Jim’s vision becomes the law of the land on all gun sales, not just those sold at federally licensed dealers. 

Currently, a criminal or dangerously mentally ill individual who wants to obtain a gun can completely bypass background check laws by simply finding an accommodating dealer online or at a gun show. 

That needs to change and I’ve dedicated almost all of my professional life to making sure it does.

I came to this work in much the way Jim did.

In April 2007, I survived the shooting at Virginia Tech. In the two years that followed, I wasn’t instantly compelled to get politically active on gun-related issues. I was a college student, focused on finishing my degree and, frankly, I wasn’t sure that anything meaningful could really be accomplished. Then, almost exactly two years after I had survived the shooting on my campus, I turned on the television to see the utter devastation that yet another mass shooting had wrought, this time in Binghamton, New York. I resolved to myself right then that I could no longer sit on the sidelines on the issue of preventing gun violence.

I immediately went to work for Jim and Sarah’s group, The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

I’m proud to say that, today, Sarah’s admonition that we finish the job and pass a universal background check bill has a real chance of becoming political reality. Even so, some in Washington point to the defeat of 2013’s comprehensive background check bill, Manchin-Toomey, as evidence that finishing the job is politically unlikely. 

This view, however, ignores the very lessons that Jim and Sarah Brady taught us and that I internalized in my time working for the organization they founded. Moreover, it ignores the fact that today’s gun violence prevention movement is considerably more robust and is starting further along than the coalition the Brady’s put together twenty-five years ago. In fact, in just its first floor vote, Manchin-Toomey yielded 55 votes and was defeated only because of a Republican-led filibuster. 

Jim understood that meaningful change wouldn’t take place overnight. The growing legions of gun violence prevention activists and the 90% of Americans who support us understand that too. 

For myself and other gun survivors, Jim was a role model and a visionary, but he was also a very practical man. He understood that winning tough fights in Washington takes time and requires people to get mobilized and passionate on the issues. Those are the exact types of lessons I’ve sought to heed in my work today at Everytown for Gun Safety, and I know others who work in this space have done the same.

Thanks to Brady’s pioneering work, the fight to bring a truly universal system of background checks is closer than ever before.

Let’s honor his legacy by finishing the job.

Colin Goddard is a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting. He works as a senior policy advocate at Everytown for Gun Safety.

Gun Policy and Gun Violence

Honoring Jim Brady's legacy by finishing the job he started

Updated