Today is the bearer of two important milestones in American firearm history. It is the birthday of Oliver Winchester, founder of the Winchester Repeating Firearms Company, as well as the 25th anniversary of the day that President Bill Clinton signed the “Brady Bill” into effect. The debate over guns and the laws that govern them has become intensely heated and polarized, but as with most anything else, increasing knowledge and understanding of history would probably lead more people to middle ground.
Oliver Winchester was born in Boston, Massachusetts on November 30, 1810. His father died when he was only six, and Oliver had to begin working a series of lousy jobs to help support his family. As he grew older, he dabbled in many business ventures, including shirt manufacturing, but never really had a ton of success. In 1857, he decided to go into the gun business, buying controlling interest in the “Volcanic Repeating Arms Company” from two men named Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. (Yes, that Smith and Wesson.)
Benjamin Tyler Henry was an engineer who worked for Winchester. Henry invented the first rifle that could be fired over and over again without reloading. This Changed guns and the way they were used forever. When the civil war ended in 1865, Americans began to look westward, and the Winchester Rifle was their weapon of choice. In fact, many refer to it as “The gun that won the west.” Oliver Winchester became one of the wealthiest men in America.
Photo Credit: Popular Mechanics
Oliver Winchester died in 1880 of tuberculosis, passing along his company to his only son, William. William had married Sarah Pardee in 1862. They had one child, who died just five weeks after being born. William Winchester died only a year after his father did, leaving his widow Sarah unbelievably wealthy, but also burdened with an insurmountable grief. Legend has it that a psychic in Boston told her that the tragedies in her life were being caused by the ghosts of all the people who had died because of Winchester Rifles, and that she should move as far out west as she could to escape those ghosts. She was instructed to make the house as confusing as possible, so the ghosts would be unable to find her. She moved out to California, near San Jose and built what is now known as the “Winchester Mystery House” which has over 160 rooms, 10,000 windows, and 2,000 doors- not all of which can be walked through.
James Brady and the “Brady Bill”
On March 31, 1981, just two months into his Presidency, Ronald Reagan was shot in the abdomen in Washington, D.C. by John Hinkley Jr. Three other people were also shot by Hinckley that day: D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, and Reagan’s Press Secretary James Brady. Reagan and Tim McCarthy recovered fairly quickly and returned to work. McCarthy wold continue with the secret service through the Presidency of Bill Clinton. Delahanty suffered serious nerve damage to his left arm and had to retire from Police work. Then there was James Brady, who was shot above the left eye. Doctors gave him a 50 percent chance to survive. Luckily, he made it, but he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, communicating using mostly slurred speech.
John Hinckley purchased his hand gun for $47 ad a pawn shop in Dallas, Texas. He was under psychiatric care at the time, and later explained that he was obsessed with the actress Jodie Foster and wanted to murder President Reagan in order to get her attention. When he went to trial, Hinckley used an insanity defense, and today is a free man. James Brady never walked again.
Along with his wife Sarah, James Brady dedicated the rest of his life to making sure that people who did not have the mental health to safely own an handgun could not do the same thing to others that Hinckley had done to him. His crowning achievement was “The Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act”, signed 25 years ago today, which established a five day waiting period and mandatory background check in order to purchase a handgun. It is considered to be the most sweeping gun legislation in American history.
There is little question that there are loopholes and plenty of ways for ill intentioned and or unwell people to gain possession of a handgun, but the Brady Bill definitely slowed down or deterred many. The Brady campaign reports that in the 25 years since it was passed, the Brady Bill has stopped the purchase of over three million hand guns.
President Clinton shaking James Brady’s hand after signing the “Brady Bill” in 1993
Photo Credit: P.B.S.
What if Brady and Winchester met?
Oliver Winchester made millions of dollars and changed America because his rifle, yet his family was haunted by it. James Brady had his life destroyed by a handgun that should have never been in an unwell man’s hands. I’ll bet if the two were alive today and sat down for a meal together, they could come up with some sensible compromises.
There are millions of Americans today who still use Winchester guns. They do it to protect their families, their property, and for sport. The majority of Americans think they should continue to have that right. James Brady didn’t want to take away all guns, only prevent them from ending up in the wrong hands. Oliver Winchester wanted to provide a better weapon for 19th century Americans to protect themselves and feed their family with. He would not have wanted to see America become a place where innocent people were murdered simply for going to concerts, dance clubs, schools, and places of worship.
Winchester is a name revered by gun enthusiasts everywhere today. James Brady is a name that represents responsible gun control to an equal number. The thing is, most Americans want both. They believe there is a place for responsible people to use firearms for protection and sport and embrace the freedoms of this great nation while feeling a whole lot safer in it. Maybe if the two sides would reduce the shouting and increase the learning, we could get to that place.
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