James Brady, former White House press secretary and gun control advocate, dies at age 73

Former White House press secretary James Brady, who was left paralyzed in the Reagan assassination attempt, wipes his eye during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 30, 2011, marking the 30th anniversary of the shooting. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (ABC News/AP) -- James Brady, the affable, witty press secretary who survived a devastating head wound in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and undertook a personal crusade for gun control, died Monday at the age of 73.

"We are heartbroken to share the news that our beloved Jim "Bear" Brady has passed away after a series of health issues," Brady's family said in a statement. "His wife, Sarah, son, Scott, and daughter, Missy, are so thankful to have had the opportunity to say their farewells."

Brady passed away at a retirement community in Alexandria, where he lived with his wife.

"Jim Brady's zest for life was apparent to all who knew him, and despite his injuries and the pain he endured every day, he used his humor, wit and charm to bring smiles to others and make the world a better place," his family's statement said.

Brady had served as Reagan's press secretary for only 69 days when he accompanied the president to a speech at the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981. A man named John Hinckley Jr., opened fire, attempting to shoot Reagan, and a bullet hit Brady in the head.

Brady was seriously injured by the assassination attempt and confined to a wheelchair after the incident. He and his wife, Sarah, went on to become dedicated advocates for gun control, and he became the namesake for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The Brady Campaign helped pass the Brady Bill in 1993, a law signed by President Bill Clinton that required a five-day waiting period and background checks on handgun purchases.

Reacting to word of his death, the Brady Campaign called its namesake "a true American hero" -- noting his trademark wit and tireless work for gun control.

{ }

We are heartbroken over James Brady's passing. We offer our deepest condolences to his wife, Sarah, and their family.

— Brady Campaign (@bradybuzz) August 4, 2014

{ }

Nancy Reagan, the former first lady, said Monday she was "deeply saddened to learn of Jim Brady's passing. Thinking of him brings back so many memories - happy and sad - of a time in all of our lives when we learned what it means to 'play the hand we're dealt.'"

The lasting public image of Brady came from the worst day of his life. A news clip of the 1981 shooting, replayed often on television and in documentaries, showed him sprawled on the sidewalk after several Secret Service agents had hustled the wounded president into his limousine and others had pounced on Hinckley.

Although Brady returned to the White House only briefly, a year after the shooting, he was allowed to keep the title of presidential press secretary - and the $89,500 annual salary as assistant to the president for press relations - until Reagan left office.

The TV replays did take a toll on Brady. He told the Associated Press in an interview years later that he relived the moment each time.

"I want to take every bit of (that) film ... and put them in a cement incinerator, slosh them with gasoline and throw a lighted cigarette in," he said.

Officials at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, where Hinckley is a patient, have said that the mental illness that led him to shoot Reagan in an effort to impress actress Jodie Foster has been in remission for decades. Hinckley has been allowed to leave the hospital to visit his mother's home in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Brady was a strong Republican from an early age. As a boy of 12 in Centralia, Illinois, where he was born on Aug. 29, 1940, he distributed election literature for Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In a long string of political jobs, Brady worked for Sen. Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, Sen. William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware and John Connally, the former Texas governor who ran for president in 1979. When Connally dropped out, Brady joined Reagan's campaign as director of public affairs and research.

Previously, he had worked in the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford: as special assistant to the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, as special assistant to the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant to the defense secretary.

He was divorced from the former Sue Beh when, in 1973, he courted Sarah Jane Kemp, the daughter of an FBI agent who was working with him in a congressional office.

Sarah Brady became involved in gun-control efforts in 1985, and later chaired Handgun Control Inc., but Brady took a few more years to join her, and Reagan did not endorse their efforts until 10 years after he was shot. Reagan's surprise endorsement - he was a longtime National Rifle Association member and an opponent of gun control laws - helped turn the tide in Congress.

"They're not going to accuse him of being some bed-wetting liberal, no way can they do that," said Brady, who had become an active lobbyist for the bill that would carry his name.

At the time of the 30th anniversary of the shooting, the Bradys told National Public Radio that they were no longer Republicans. "Times change," Sarah Brady said.

President Barack Obama described Brady as a White House legend, who turned "the events of that terrible afternoon into a remarkable legacy of service." Thanks to Brady and the law bearing his name, "an untold number of people are alive today who otherwise wouldn't be," the president said in a statement.

In its own statement, the National Rifle Association said it extended "heartfelt condolences" to Brady's family.

Clinton awarded Brady the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. In 2000, the press briefing room at the White House was renamed in his honor. The following year, Handgun Control Inc., was renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Brady also served as vice chair of the National Organization on Disability and co-chair of the National Head Injury Foundation.