WASHINGTON — Former White House Press Secretary James S. Brady said from his wheelchair Tuesday that lawmakers who oppose a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases are "cowardly lions" who have caved in to pressure from the National Rifle Assn.
Testifying before a congressional hearing for the first time since he was shot eight years ago, Brady suggested that lawmakers "try being in my shoes for just one day."
Brady's appearance before a Senate subcommittee hearing on handgun controls moved some legislators and their aides close to tears.
"There was a day when I walked the halls of this Senate and worked closely with many of you and your staffs," Brady reminded the senators, adding that now, because of his injuries, he cannot even go to the bathroom by himself.
Left partly paralyzed after being shot in the head by John W. Hinckley Jr. in the 1981 assassination attempt against then-President Ronald Reagan, Brady recalled his "wonderful" days as White House press secretary when, "for a time, I felt people looked up to me."
Now, he said, life as an invalid has taught him "how hard it is to have people speaking down to me."
"I need help getting out of bed, help taking a shower and help getting dressed and, damn it, I even need help to go to the bathroom," Brady said. "It's not easy to tell you this because I don't want your sympathy or pity. But I tell you because you can do something, not to help me, but to prevent this from happening to others."
Along with his wife, Sarah, who has become a leading advocate for handgun controls, Brady urged the senators to adopt a bill requiring a seven-day waiting period for a handgun purchase so law enforcement officials could determine whether the prospective buyer had a criminal record.
The National Rifle Assn., which opposes the so-called Brady bill on grounds that it would infringe on the constitutional right to bear arms, helped to defeat the measure in Congress last year.
Brady said he was angry about that. Likening the gun lobby to the "evil empire," he said that he felt compelled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Constitution subcommittee because legislators have proven "gutless on this issue," allowing themselves to be intimidated by the NRA's formidable lobbying pressure.
"There are too many cowardly lions walking the halls of Congress. I fight every day to maintain the courage I need to survive. I pray that Congress can find the courage to quickly pass the Brady bill," the former White House spokesman said.
Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), calling Brady's testimony "the most moving" he has ever heard, said he would press for passage of the measure when Congress convenes next January after its winter recess.
Subcommittee Chairman Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said they also would push for the legislation. "We need the Brady bill now as the only feasible way to stop the arms race on our streets," Kennedy said.
However, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) criticized the waiting-period proposal as both misdirected and an infringement of "the right of law-abiding citizens to acquire lawful firearms of their choice at any time when they might feel the need to do so." He said he has doubts about "its need or, for that matter, its feasibility" because factors that contribute to crime vary from state to state and are too complex to be addressed by one national standard.
James S. Brady, the beefy Midwesterner nicknamed "the Bear," became then-President Ronald Reagan's press secretary in 1981. Three months later, he was shot in the head during the assassination attempt on Reagan by John W. Hinckley Jr. Brady was left partly paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. His wife, Sarah, became an outspoken advocate of gun control after the shootings. This year, Brady accepted an unpaid job as vice chairman of the National Organization on Disability.