Former White House press secretary James Brady, 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, has died at age 73, his family said Monday.
A statement from the family cited "a series of health issues" for the longtime government and political spokesman who was paralyzed during the attack more than three decades ago.
"Over the years, Jim inspired so many people as he turned adversity into accomplishment," the family said in the statement.
President Obama said that Brady became "a legend at the White House for his warmth and professionalism as press secretary for President Reagan; for the strength he brought to bear in recovering from the shooting that nearly killed him 33 years ago; and for turning the events of that terrible afternoon into a remarkable legacy of service."
Current White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Brady "really revolutionized this job" and set a standard that successors should emulate.
As for Brady's longtime campaign for gun control, Earnest said he "showed his patriotism and commitment to the country by being very outspoken on an issue that was important to him and that he felt very strongly about."
Earnest and 11 former White House press secretaries issued a statement saying that Brady "defined the role of the modern White House Press Secretary. With his passing we lost a friend and mentor, and the country lost a selfless public servant who dedicated his life to service, even in the face of tragedy."
The White House press room is named in Brady's honor. So is the federal law that requires background checks on handgun buyers.
"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 to Prevent Gun Violence.
President Clinton, who signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act into law in 1993, awarded Brady the Presidential Medal of Freedom on 1996.
Vice President Biden, who backed the Brady bill as a U.S. senator, said that "sensible background checks to date have kept 2 million guns out of the wrong hands." Biden, who recalled the days when Brady worked as press secretary for Republican Sen. William Roth of Delaware during the 1970s, praised the spokesman for "his honesty, humor, decency and absolute courage."
Born Aug. 29, 1940, in Centralia, Ill., Brady graduated from the University of Illinois in 1962 and held a number of jobs in government and Republican politics for two decades.
A spokesman for John Connally's failed campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, Brady later joined Ronald Reagan's team and served as spokesman for the president-elect.
A quick wit who was not above making fun of the boss, Brady became legendary for a crack he once made on the Reagan campaign plane. Not long after candidate Reagan said that trees cause pollution, as the plane flew above a forest fire, Brady could be heard yelling, "Killer trees! Killer trees!" (That one got him suspended from the plane for a while.)
Reagan — reportedly over objections from wife Nancy — tapped Brady as White House press secretary shortly after the 1981 inauguration. Nicknamed "The Bear," the garrulous Brady was highly regarded by the press corps.
"I come before you today not as just another pretty face, but out of sheer talent," the balding Brady told reporters shortly before he got the job.
Nancy Reagan said in a statement that Brady "brought sharp instincts. integrity and energy" to the job of press secretary. She described him as "the personification of courage and perseverance."
On March 30, 1981, Brady accompanied Reagan to a speech at the Washington Hilton when John Hinckley Jr. opened fire on the presidential party. Reagan was wounded, and recovered.
Caught in the crossfire, Brady sustained a wound to the head that left him with partial paralysis. Through therapy and a series of operations, Brady suffered constant pain as well as some slurred speech and some loss of memory.
Arthur Kobrine, the surgeon who operated on Brady less than an hour after the shooting, said Hinckley used bullets that were supposed to explode on impact.
"The only one that exploded hit Mr. Brady," said Kobrine, a neurosurgeon at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. "It was a devastating injury to the brain."
Brady retained the title of press secretary for the remainder of Reagan's presidency as others performed the duties of the office.
His wife, Sarah Brady, became active in gun-control issues during the 1980s and wound up as chair of Handgun Control Inc. Her husband later joined her and, in 2001, the organization was renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who as a U.S. House member helped push through the Brady background check bill, called its namesake "a giant" in terms of his recovery and his anti-gun activism.
Citing Brady's " indomitable strength, force of character and morality," Schumer lauded him for "staring down so many in the Congress and persuading them to pass the Brady Law."
In his statement, Obama noted that visitors to the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House walk past a plaque honoring Brady by saying: "May his courage and dedication continue to inspire all who work in this room and beyond."
"Those words will endure, as will his legacy," Obama said.
Contributing: The Associated Press