Many years ago, when I was in college, a professor told me that some people chose to change the world while others were chosen by the world to change it.
James Brady fit the second category. Brady, who died Monday at the age of 73, didn't set out to become the country's best-known champion of gun control. If he hadn't been shot during an assassination attempt against President Reagan, we'd simply remember him as Reagan's affable, roly-poly press secretary.
But now we remember him as much more than that, because of the way Brady engaged the issue that fate dealt him. And that's the part my professor left out.
Yes, history chose Jim Brady for a role in our great national drama about firearms and their regulation. But his lines were always his own, and so was the decision to keep acting even as the play wore on.
And he's not the only one. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) started a gun-control campaign after her husband was killed on a commuter train in 1993; three years later, she was elected to Congress.
Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai's message about the importance of educating girls would never have gotten worldwide attention had she not been shot by the Taliban for expressing her views.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was forced to resign from Congress after she was shot at a shopping mall. Giffords and her husband now operate a political action committee to press for stronger firearms regulation.
Beyond the world of guns, meanwhile, Michael J. Fox became a tireless spokesman for Parkinson's research and care after he was diagnosed with the disease. And Magic Johnson shocked the country — and the world — when he announced that he was HIV positive in 1991.
Johnson didn't choose to become a symbol of AIDS, any more than Jim Brady chose his status as a gun-control icon. But, like Brady, Johnson embraced the new role he was given. And lucky for us. At the time, most Americans regarded AIDS as a disease reserved for gays and drug addicts. It couldn't happen to someone like Magic Johnson.
But it did, and Johnson never shied away from it. He spoke openly about his contraction of HIV and the ways that others could avoid it. Johnson also played in the NBA All-Star Game and later on the 1992 Olympics "Dream Team," even when several other players said they were worried about sharing the court with an HIV-positive athlete.
Likewise, James Brady transformed his personal travails into a force for social change. But he did so under conditions that the rest of us can't imagine.
Shot in the forehead, Brady spent most of the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He suffered memory loss, slurred speech and depression. "I need help getting out of bed, help taking a shower and help getting dressed, and — damn it — I need help going to the bathroom," he told Congress, testifying on behalf of background checks for gun buyers.
But Brady and his wife soldiered on, often in vain but with occasional victories, such as when Bill Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which required background checks for many firearms purchases. After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, the Bradys also helped win a measure to close the loophole that had allowed the gunman to purchase weapons even though he had been ordered by a judge to receive treatment for mental illness.
Meanwhile, Brady had to withstand criticism from old friends and associates who didn't like his new role. By the 1990s, Jim and Sarah Brady had become Democrats, but they continued to maintain old friendships with Republicans, including Reagan, who wrote a now-famous op-ed endorsing the Brady Bill in 1991.
You can debate the effect of this measure, and of subsequent gun-control legislation. But you still have to admire the brave way that James Brady shouldered his assignment from history, even after his body was shattered. "You've got to persevere," Brady told a reporter in 1986. We should all be grateful he did.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of education and history at New York University. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education."
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