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The best way to honor James Brady

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Some of the most powerful lessons about what is good for a nation begin with one person's tragedy. But too often, they're not implemented until more people are martyred to the cause.

When he went to work as Ronald Reagan's press secretary in 1981, James Brady could scarcely have imagined that gun control advocacy would become his life's purpose. His boss had touted Second Amendment rights in his presidential campaign. Years later, tea party activists even made a poster of the former president saying, “You can't get gun control by disarming law abiding citizens.”

With his signature, Reagan made it easier to transport guns between states and ended federal records keeping on ammunition sales. But the shooting two months into Reagan's administration that injured him and left Brady paralyzed turned Brady and his wife, Sarah, into influential gun-reform activists.

Brady, 73, died Monday, 33 years after becoming collateral damage to John Hinckley Jr.'s twisted fantasies about killing the president to win the affections of actress Jodie Foster. Brady's signature achievement is the law that bears his name. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires federal background checks on gun purchases. According to Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, it has blocked 2 million gun sales to criminals, domestic abusers and other dangerous people. Though introduced in 1987, it didn't become law until after Reagan had left office.

Congress has passed no significant gun control measures since 1993. We've gotten used to seeing bodies — even tiny ones — carried out of schools, colleges, movie theaters and places of worship on the nightly news. Twenty-one states have recently taken it upon themselves to enact gun laws, but there is much more to be done.

The National Gun Victims Action Council offers a commonsense set of proposals that could make us all safer without taking away gun owners' rights. They include that every gun owner be licensed and every gun be registered and insured; that criminals, mentally ill people and those legally prohibited from buying guns be barred from buying them at gun shows or over the Internet; that no one be allowed to carry guns into restaurants, bars, schools and other gathering places; and that every gun have a smart trigger so it can fire only after recognizing the owner's fingerprint.

Part of the council's approach is to lobby corporations to prohibit guns from their premises in much the same way the anti-smoking campaign did to get rid of second-hand cigarette smoke.

It's unfortunate that it has to take tragedies before politicians muster up the fortitude to say no to a lobby or a political stance. Real life can intrude on hard-line stances. And when it does, it can have an effect.

“Jim and Sarah demonstrated that it was possible to turn a terrible tragedy into real change,” said the statement by the Brady Campaign president.

Let's not let Brady's life pass without dedicating ourselves, as leaders, as parents and as individuals, to sensible gun-safety measures. We don't need another human face to attach to the cause. We have enough legacies now, from Tucson, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Newtown and beyond to have this lesson learned.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for The Des Moines Register.

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