WASHINGTON —James Brady devoted the entire second half of his life to the fight for gun control. He died Monday at 73 having achieved stunning successes while absorbing wrenching setbacks as a formidable advocate for a part of American life that remains among the most politically fraught.
The former White House press secretary, who survived a bullet wound to the head during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan and went on to lead the gun-control campaign that bears his name, suffered from "a series of health issues," a family statement said.
He was paralyzed during the attack 33 years ago.
Of all the tragic victims of gun violence, Brady became the face and — along with wife Sarah — the force of an enduring campaign to block firearm sales to convicted criminals and the dangerously mentally ill.
The Brady Handgun Violence and Prevention Act remains perhaps the most consequential piece of firearms legislation since its passage in 1993, analysts said.
In the more than two decades since President Bill Clinton signed the law, which requires background checks on firearms purchases from federally licensed dealers, it has blocked the transfer of about 2 million guns.
"Clearly, (the Brady law) has been the most important factor in keeping guns away from the people who shouldn't have them,'' former Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives director John Magaw said. "It was a historic and strong piece of legislation.''
Yet as iconic as the Bradys and their movement had become, recent gun control defeats, especially in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., may have best proved the divisiveness of gun politics in the United States.
The Obama administration's efforts to build on Brady's legacy of background checks, with fresh proposals for expanded background checks -- so-called universal background checks -- to cover sales at gun shows and a renewed ban on assault weapons were opposed by the powerful gun rights lobby and were defeated in Congress.
"They didn't get done everything they wanted, but neither has anybody else,'' Magaw said. "This is a sad day, but he helped make this country a safer place.''
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who worked with the Bradys on the landmark legislation, called its namesake "a giant.''
"Jim Brady was a giant, both in his ability to overcome the tragic shooting and then — with his indomitable strength, force of character and morality — by staring down so many in the Congress and persuading them to pass the Brady law,'' Schumer said. "Jim Brady may be gone, but tens of thousands live on, thanks to his tireless efforts.''
For the Bradys, the legislation remains the centerpiece of an effort that continues with the work of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a powerful voice for gun control.
"There are few Americans in history who are as directly responsible for saving as many lives as Jim,'' said Dan Gross, president of the Brady campaign.
"I am deeply proud to have called Jim Brady a friend,'' Gross said in a statement. "He will be missed dearly by everyone at our organization, which proudly bears his name, and by a nation that has been made better by his life.''
On most issues, the Brady campaign was aligned against a well-funded and vigilant gun rights lobby, which included gun owners and gunmakers.
"While we disagreed with a number of policy issues supported by the organization that bears his name, we always did support background checks at the original point of purchase,'' said Larry Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the gun industry.
"The death of Jim Brady is very sad. We offer our condolences to his family.''