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Handgun History: When Bystanders Are Assailants

ON the bulletin board in my Washington office, from time to time I would post front-page photos in which I happened to appear, clipped from newspapers around the country. Reporters on the political trail often find themselves in the crowds drawn to celebrities - though they are detached onlookers, much as Rembrandt often painted himself into the background of his works. In a front-page photo in the New York Times, Jan. 7, 1981, and a similar photo in that day's Washington Post, Ronald Reagan is pictured outside Blair House, the president-elect's quarters until inauguration day, when his residence across Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House, would be vacated by Jimmy Carter. To Reagan's right is a beaming James A. Brady, just introduced as presidential press secretary. Karna Small, blond with a model's smile, in a fur coat, not a trench coat, is at Reagan's left. In the background, collar up, likely unrecognized by anyone but himself, is yours truly.

Brady, a bear of a man, had a great sense of humor. A former Treasury spokesman, he called the prediction that Reagan's budget would balance in five years, the "mirage effect." Soon after a few stand-in briefings for Brady, Ms. Small would lose her job. And shortly Brady would almost lose his life.

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Soon after, during the March 30 noon hour, I was walking across Lafayette Park, returning from the White House, a stone's throw or two from Blair House. There was a light, misty rain, the kind of weather that signals the transition point from winter to spring. In a pagan society, I remember thinking, this would be the moment of transition for leaders: " 201> long live the king!"

When I reached the office at 16th Street and K, the calls were already coming in. Reagan, Brady, a Secret Service officer, and a Washington police officer had been shot. At the Washington Hilton up on Connecticut Avenue. Al Haig soon was to tell an anxious staff and nation not to worry, he was in charge. Reagan was to endear himself to a nation by saying he hoped the surgeons about to remove a bullet from his lung were Republicans. And Jim Brady, shot through the brain, would begin a long, courageous re covery.

Mr. Reagan did many thoughtful things for his fallen press secretary after that - not the least maintaining Brady's title for him through Brady's years of incapacity. But it was not until last Thursday that Ronald Reagan did the right thing by Jim Brady.

Through his years in office, Reagan stood by the National Rifle Association, a powerful lobby, and against gun control. People, not guns, kill people, he would say. Could he really have believed that? Sarah Brady, Jim's wife, took up the gun control crusade. At public events the Reagans and Bradys appeared together, a counterpoint in public policy.

"This nightmare might never have happened if legislation that is before Congress now - the Brady bill - had been law back in 1981," Reagan said in recanting his opposition to federal gun control laws.

The bill is modest. It requires a seven-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns. This would enable police to check out buyers. Rifles and shotguns are exempt. Reagan had signed into state law a 15-day waiting period while governor of California. That law stopped nearly 1,800 prohibited handgun sales in 1989.

But it was only now, a decade later, that the former president set the moral force of his leadership against the gun lobby. President Bush, who a week earlier had opposed the Brady bill, may be rethinking his position.

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Reagan was the natural leader of a large number of Americans. His steady base of support kept his approval rating from dipping low through a recession his first term, and through the Iran-contra scandal his second term. Reagan's public recanting may help other politicians, strangely blind to the multiplying handgun mayhem, to see the tragedy of such weapons. More than 9,000 Americans are murdered by handguns annually, Reagan observed, not including "suicides or the tens of thousands of robberies, rapes, and assaults committed with handguns."

History is not abstract. It may be only the difference between a newsman watching on a Washington sidewalk, and a movie-star-struck assailant.

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