The National Rifle Association, whose 3 million members have endorsed President Ronald Reagan, claims she is just a "big name" who's being "used."
But Sarah Brady -- who has ended the silence about the shooting that crippled her husband, Reagan Press Secretary Jim Brady, to campaign for tougher gun control laws -- doesn't flinch.
"I don't think I'm a weak person who could be used by anybody," says the woman whose strength, friends say, has been a key factor in Brady's recovery. "I think they have no other way than to attack me."
A self-described moderate on gun control, the daughter of an FBI agent who learned to shoot on an FBI range, Sarah Brady says she finds it "kind of funny" that the NRA has tried to dismiss her efforts as "emotionalism."
"I think it's hysterical," she says, "that they talk about me being emotional and their members around the country use scare tactics saying, 'The liberals are taking our guns away. Do something!' "
The controversy is coming to a showdown. Debate on the two measures is scheduled to begin in the House today.
The NRA supports a bill, commonly called the McClure-Volkmer bill, which would change the 1968 Gun Control Act to allow interstate sale of all guns, including handguns, and ease record-keeping requirements on gun dealers.
Brady and her lobbying group support another bill, Rodino-Hughes, which would allow interstate sales of only rifles and shotguns, and would require a background check on anyone trying to buy a handgun -- even though they'd like to see a waiting period added to that.
"Everything will be on the line," says Brady.
A lifelong Republican whose affection for Ronald Reagan is unwavering, Brady has been walking a fine line between conviction and loyalty here.
Jim Brady, 45, who lost a portion of his brain to a bullet from a $29 pawnshop handgun John Hinckley aimed at the president five years ago this month, still goes to work at the White House one day a week to answer mail and attend briefings.
Meanwhile, Sarah Brady, 44, has been unrelenting in lobbying Congress since she decided to go public last summer, putting her at odds with Ronald Reagan's staunch opposition to gun control.
She says Reagan's position had nothing to do with her not speaking out earlier.
"That certainly was not the reason I didn't say anything -- because I'm not sure we really disagree that much on the issue," she says. "But it was mainly that there was no particular reason at that point to do so. I certainly didn't want to all of a sudden be a hysterical housewife -- 'Look what happened to my husband.' "
She sees "gun control" as a buzzword. "I'm talking about a specific bill right now that I don't like and think is dangerous," she says. "I'm fighting that particular piece of legislation, none of which have I ever discussed personally with the administration."
She says that the primary reason she hasn't talked to Reagan is that she believes she should concentrate her efforts on the Hill, since that's where the bills are.
But she says she can't help thinking about how Reagan might feel -- "that it might be hard to use his own personal experience," she says.
"I mean, it's a personal commitment with him. And to go through all these years of hearing about other people getting hurt and then only because it happened to you do you change . . . I mean, I think his mind's been on a lot of other things, and I doubt we disagree."
She says she asked her husband "early on" if he would be uncomfortable if she worked for gun controls. She remembers that "he thought about it a little bit and he said, 'No, you're a private citizen.' "
Though Jim Brady listened when she voiced her concerns, she says he never told her how he felt. He still hasn't. "He knows he's the presidential press secretary and he's not going to make a statement. And he's not made that to me," she says.
Where he has broken his silence is on the techniques of working the Hill. "He gives me hints on how to talk to Congress," she says, "because he's worked on the Hill and knows lobbying."
When he's pressed, she says, he is likely to turn flip, proclaiming that he's for the "right to arm bears" -- a typical Jim Brady play on words that also refers to an affinity for bears that long ago earned him "The Bear" as a nickname.
After he was shot, Sarah devoted her life to helping him recover and raising their then 2-year-old son Scott.
"The maddest I've ever been in my life," she says, was on a 1984 visit to Jim's mother in Illinois. A friend offered her and Scott a ride to a nearby swimming pool. When she climbed into the pickup truck after Scott she found him holding a .22 like the gun Hinckley had fired at the president three years earlier.
"It was fully loaded," she says. "I said, 'What in the world is this doing here?' and [the driver] said 'I keep it for self-protection. Out here you really need it.' I said, 'That's the dumbest thing I ever saw.' Now I wish I had turned him in. I was livid."
Sarah Brady's feelings about gun control are not new. In 1973 she was working for former Colorado representative James D. McKevitt, a member of the Judiciary Committee and an active proponent of banning Saturday night specials. Another McKevitt staffer was shot and killed by her boyfriend. It was a tragedy that stayed with then Sarah Kemp, for she and Jim Brady had met by then and on several occasions had doubled-dated with the couple.
She says it was a tragedy that stricter gun laws might have averted -- just as she says they might have averted Hinckley's purchase of the handgun he used as Reagan left the Washington Hilton.
Her day of reckoning came last summer, even though she says that in the back of her mind had always been the thought that when her Scott, now 7, was a little older, "what I'd really like to do was work on some legislation for putting in a background check and going for a few more controls."
Then, when McClure-Volkmer reached the Senate floor and she realized "there was actually a possibility that someone was going to weaken the few laws we have now, I thought I really do need to speak out."
At a party shortly before that, longtime Reagan campaign operative Peter Hannaford, now a Washington consultant, had told her about Handgun Control Inc., a 12-year-old, 170,000-member citizens group. She says she liked what Hannaford told her, thinking the group reflected her own concerns about the dangers of handguns falling into the hands of criminals. "There are other groups more extremist than we are. Everybody associated with it seemed good solid people," she says.
Not long after that, Hannaford called to ask if she had read the paper that day about the Senate's passage of McClure-Volkmer. "I hadn't," she remembers, "but after I did, he said 'Would you be interested in helping?' I was, and here I am."
Since last fall, when she joined the board of Handgun Control Inc., she has been a tireless critic of what she calls the "cavalier attitude we have toward guns in this country." Besides worrying about arming criminals, she thinks better training programs are needed for people who think they need a gun for self-protection.
"If you have a gun for self-protection, statistics show it's six times more likely to be misused than it is to be used successfully in fending off a crime. In other words," she says, "it's more likely to be stolen, or picked up by a child who shouldn't have it or turned against you than the one perpetrating the crime.
"And then, for everybody, it's a moral decision. Even if it is a crime [being committed] do you really want to shoot somebody? I'm not even taking issue with the people who say that's what they want," she says. "That's their freedom. But I do think we need to take a more responsible look at guns."
Even a burglary last fall did not change her mind about having a gun for self-protection. "I woke up in the morning and found they got the Betamax, a small TV and $14," she says. "It proves you can sleep right through it. But if you don't and you're kind of groggy, will you be able to stand up and defend you and your family?"
She says she believes her father "would never go along with any measures that would make handguns so accessible. I never laid eyes on my father's own service gun because it was locked away. He was in the FBI 10 years."
Her own son knows what happened to his father, and though she has never bought Scott a toy gun, she also has been careful not to make them forbidden fruit. He is permitted to play with friends who have them and she has also told him that when he is old enough, if he is interested in learning to shoot a real gun, he may do so with proper training.
She says she believes that the Bradys' lives would be a lot different today if there had been a waiting period so Texas authorities could check on Hinckley's background when he bought that gun, made by R.J. Rome of Florida from parts imported from Germany.
"John Hinckley committed a felony when he used an old Texas driver's license and lied about his address on the federal handgun form," Brady said at a press conference on the Hill last week.
She said Hinckley "might well have been in jail instead of on his way to Washington," if Texas police "had been given the opportunity to discover his lies on the federal form."
Of Hinckley, now, she says "that's over and done with" and the five years Jim Brady has spent recuperating from wounds doctors thought would be fatal have found him going places on his own, riding horseback twice a week and displaying an independence once thought improbable.
"I think I always thought Jim was going to do just great," Sarah Brady says. "He has a lot of fight, pride and determination and that kept him going. He doesn't have a negative attitude. He never had one before . . . Luckily that part of him wasn't damaged."