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James Brady, White House press secretary under Reagan, dies

  • brady_reagan_033081.jpg

    This March 30, 1981 file photo shows a U.S. secret service agent with an automatic weapon watching over James Brady, after he was wounded in an attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan in Washington. (AP)

  • brady_033011.jpg

    This March 30, 2011 file photo shows former White House press secretary James Brady looking at his wife Sarah Brady during a news conference on Capitol Hill. (AP)

  • Reagan-Assassination-Anniversary-JPEG-4.jpg

    In this March 30, 1981 black-and-white file photo, an unidentified secret agent, automatic weapon drawn, yells orders after shots were fired at President Ronald Reagan in Washington. (AP)

  • hinckley_file_03.jpg

    In this 2003 file photo, John Hinckley Jr. arrives at US District Court for a hearing. (AP)

James Brady, the former White House press secretary who was badly wounded in the assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan and later became an advocate for gun control, has died. He was 73. 

His family announced Brady's death in a statement released Monday afternoon, saying he "passed away after a series of health issues." 

"Jim touched the lives of so many and has been a wonderful husband, father, friend and role model," his family said. "We are enormously proud of Jim's remarkable accomplishments -- before he was shot on the fateful day in 1981 while serving at the side of President Ronald Reagan and in the days, months and years that followed. 

"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. Over the years, Jim inspired so many people as he turned adversity into accomplishment." 

Brady was left permanently disabled after being shot in the head on March 30, 1981, by John Hinckley, Jr., outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. 

He afterward undertook a personal crusade for gun control, and lobbied for stricter handgun and assault-weapon laws.  A federal law requiring a background check on handgun buyers bears Brady's name, and The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is named in his honor. 

"Since 1993, the law that bears Jim's name has kept guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals. An untold number of people are alive today who otherwise wouldn't be, thanks to Jim," President Obama said in a statement on Monday. 

Although Brady returned to the White House only briefly, he was allowed to keep the title of presidential press secretary and his White House salary until Reagan left office in January 1989. 

Brady, who spent much of the rest of his life in a wheelchair, died at a retirement community in Alexandria, Va., where he lived with his wife, Sarah. 

"Jim was the personification of courage and perseverance. He and Sarah never gave up, and never stopped caring about the causes in which they believed," former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement. 

Current White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who was asked about Brady's legacy during Monday's briefing as reports of his death first crossed, said Brady "really revolutionized the job." He said even after he was wounded, he "showed his patriotism and commitment to the country" by being outspoken on an issue important to him. 

The White House briefing room is also named after Brady. 

Brady "leaves the kind of legacy ... that certainly this press secretary and all future press secretaries will aspire to live up to," Earnest said. 

Of the four people stuck by gunfire on March 30, 1981, Brady was the most seriously wounded. A news clip of the shooting, replayed often on television, showed Brady sprawled on the ground as Secret Service agents hustled the wounded president into his limousine. Reagan was shot in one lung while a policeman and a Secret Service agent suffered lesser wounds. 

Brady never regained full health. The shooting caused brain damage, partial paralysis, short-term memory impairment, slurred speech and constant pain. 

The TV replays of the shooting did take a toll on Brady, however. He told The Associated Press years later that he relived the moment each time he saw it: "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." With remarkable courage, he endured a series of brain operations in the years after the shooting. 

On Nov. 28, 1995, while he was in an oral surgeon's office, Brady's heart stopped beating and he was taken to a hospital. His wife, Sarah, credited the oral surgeon and his staff with saving Brady's life. 

Brady was a strong Republican from an early age -- as a boy of 12 in Centralia, Ill., 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 some well-known bosses: Sen. Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, Sen. William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware, and John Connally, the former Texas governor who was running for president in 1979. When Connally dropped out, Brady joined Reagan's campaign as director of public affairs and research. He later joined the Reagan White House. 

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 opponent of gun control laws -- began to 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. 

The Brady law required a five-day wait and background check before a handgun could be sold. In November 1993, as President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law, Brady said: "Every once in a while you need to wake up and smell the propane. I needed to be hit in the head before I started hitting the bricks." 

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

Survivors include his wife, Sarah; a son, Scott; and a daughter, Melissa.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.