by Dr. Michael S. Brown
March 22, 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.
Her autobiography, "A Good Fight," arrives in bookstores this
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
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 be 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
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, www.dsgl.org. He may be contacted