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The autobiography of Sarah Brady

By Dr. Michael S. Brown
web posted March 25, 2002

The name Sarah Brady has become synonymous with gun control. As chair of Handgun Control Inc., she has been an active combatant in America's cultural war over the right of citizens to keep and bear arms.

A Good FightHer autobiography, A Good Fight,arrived in bookstores this past weekend. While it does not rank with the great biographies, it may be of interest to historians and students who wish to understand the personalities involved in the gun control debate.

It begins with the tragic wounding of her husband, White House Press Secretary Jim Brady, by a lunatic intent on assassinating President Reagan in 1981. Jim Brady's heroic struggle to survive and recover from a crippling head wound is a recurring theme throughout the book along with the family's efforts to cope with the disaster.

Sarah Brady describes her middle-class life before she entered the world of Washington politics. During the mid-1960's she spent two years as a 5th grade teacher in a black neighborhood and she recalls that there was no fear of guns in her school. She did not mention the fact that guns were much more easily available in that era than they are now.

In 1968, she began working for a Republican campaign committee in Washington and began her lifelong involvement in politics. Although her husband was a key Reagan team member, her politics would have to be called Republican in name only. She makes several references to her dissatisfaction with Republican positions on many issues and she seems relieved to report her endorsement of Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election.

Her story includes several interesting vignettes of life among Washington's power elite when her husband was a key member of the Reagan administration.

Brady did not feel like she belonged in this rarified strata of society, but the reader can sense her outrage when an assassin's bullet pierced the royal cocoon of bodyguards and limousines to unfairly cut short the intoxicating experience.

The important turning point in her life actually occurred a few years after her husband was injured. She describes an incident where her young, hyperactive son picked up a loaded handgun from the seat of a friend's car. Never having been taught about guns, the youngster began to wave it around like a toy. Upon realizing their narrow escape from disaster, something snaps inside Sarah Brady.

A person from a rural area might have decided to teach gun safety classes to families and young people. Brady's background in Washington politics probably explains why she chose to advocate restrictive laws and more government control of society. She instinctively decided to dedicate her life to gun control and soon joined HCI as a spokesperson.

She apparently felt right at home. Her choice of words indicates her complete acceptance of the anti-gun faith. She is always careful to say that people are killed "by" guns rather than with guns, as if guns are beings with minds of their own. She also reveals her lack of knowledge about guns with statements like: "...Saturday Night Specials, which are used almost exclusively for crime."

Brady offers some interesting details about the inner workings of the anti-gun lobby. She portrays them as terribly overmatched by the giant NRA, but deliberately omits the fact that the elite media was universally supportive of the anti-gun movement. This resulted in an essentially level playing field, making for some interesting strategies to change public opinion and influence votes in Congress.

A perfect example is the brilliantly cynical decision to destroy the friendly relationship that had long existed between the NRA and the law enforcement community. The folks at HCI seized on the completely bogus issue of "cop killer bullets" which had never killed a cop, but made a perfect political weapon.

Law enforcement leaders saw it as an important symbolic issue. The NRA saw serious practical problems with the legislation. It also went against their sense of propriety to support a law that accomplished nothing beyond adding another layer to the growing pile of restrictive laws that were bedeviling honest gun owners.

The HCI strategy was a complete success and the rift between the NRA and law enforcement has still not been fully repaired.

Brady discusses the "Assault Weapon Ban" in a way that gives some insight into her thinking. Criminals were never affected by the ban and the firearms industry soon found ways around the law, yet she is still proud of her victory. Apparently what she really cares about is conducting a good fight.

The fact that Brady and her husband suffered in such a public way tended to insulate her from some of the harsh personal attacks that are always part of a bitter public debate. Gun rights activists, who are human too, had some sympathy for Brady and were more comfortable picking on easy targets like Rosie O'Donnell or Bill Clinton.

It is fascinating to find that Brady has nothing but contempt for her opponents. Anyone who disagreed with her is labeled an extremist and Charlton Heston is called a "pompous ass." She also has harsh and insulting words for various members of Congress who did not support her agenda.

When protesters appeared at many of her speaking engagements, she felt an almost overpowering fear for her own safety. By demonizing gun owners, she made them into fearsome monsters that required her to summon up all her courage in order to continue speaking. She does not understand that the last thing the gun rights community wanted was a martyr. She was probably safer surrounded by her enemies than she was on a Washington street where the failure of gun control laws is legend.

An ironic twist occurs late in the story. Her bright, but troublesome son matured into a responsible young man and he wished to receive a hunting rifle for Christmas. At first horrified, Brady decided that her son was a grown man and she wasn't going to let her personal feelings get in the way of giving him what he wanted for Christmas. She writes, "I no longer wanted to play judge and jury" in his life. If only the rest of us were so fortunate.

Her experience at the gun store is priceless. She seems afraid that the gun owners in the shop might turn on her if they discover who she is as the gun dealer calls in her identifying information to request government approval of her purchase. Her feelings are similar to those reported by responsible gun owners who feel they are treated like criminals every time they buy a firearm.

The last major event is the discovery that Brady, a long time smoker, had lung cancer. Being a member of the Washington elite, she of course had access to the latest treatments. But at least in the advance copy of her book, they all appear to have failed.

What is truly fascinating here is to compare her views on cigarettes with the way she blamed guns for her husband's injury. Brady takes full responsibility for her decision to smoke cigarettes throughout her adult life in spite of many warnings, beginning with her father who called them "cancer sticks" before she ever began smoking.

This may the most ironic theme in the book. There is no hint that she blames the tobacco companies for her illness. She does not ask for cigarette users to be licensed. There are no shrill pleas for laws to "save the children" from this terrible scourge which kills far more people than guns. Perhaps she is trying to tell us that controlling yourself can sometimes be more difficult than trying to control others.

Sarah Brady is appearing now on talk shows, promoting her book in the company of sympathetic hosts. You can bet that pro-gun authors would not be accorded the same privilege and you can be certain that she will not notice the double standard.

Like most autobiographies, A Good Fight portrays the author in a favorable light and presents her political views in a one-sided way. This reader was left with an impression of Sarah Brady as a tough, quirky and somewhat neurotic mom who had some success imposing her maternal will on a nation.

Dr. Michael S. Brown is an optometrist and member of Doctors for Sensible Gun Laws. He may be contacted at rkba2000@yahoo.com.

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