WASHINGTON -- With his former press secretary, James S. Brady, flashing a thumbs-up, Ronald Reagan capped an emotional return yesterday to the hospital that saved their lives 10 years ago by backing a handgun-control bill that the gun lobby strongly opposes.
"I am going to say it in clear, unmistakable language," former President Reagan declared: "I support the Brady bill, and I urge Congress to enact it without further delay."
His announcement, in front of the doctors and nurses who helped cut a bullet out of his chest and who virtually brought Mr. Brady back from the dead, put him at odds with the powerful National Rifle Association for the first time in all his 80 years.
In making the switch, Mr. Reagan blew a kiss to Mr. Brady and his wife, Sarah, the fervent chief lobbyists for the federal gun-control bill that bears their name.
The Bradys were among a crowd of doctors, nurses and former Reagan aides and friends at George Washington University marking the March 30, 1981, attack.
"It's just plain common sense," Mr. Reagan said, for the federal government to require a seven-day waiting period for those who want to buy a handgun -- a measure, incidentally, that would not have kept the gun out of the hands of his would-be assassin, John W. Hinckley Jr.
"With the right to bear arms comes a great responsibility to use ZTC caution and common sense on handgun purchases," Mr. Reagan said.
Some opponents said Mr. Reagan carries little weight now. "He' no longer a kinetic force in American politics," said John Michael Snyder of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.
Still, opponents of the measure were clearly worried about Mr. Reagan's public backing. On hearing of Mr. Reagan's endorsement, an official of the NRA looked at a picture of the former president on his desk and said, "Don't do this to me."
After the ceremony, at which Mr. Reagan was made an honorary doctor of public service and an emergency medical facility was named for him, Mr. Reagan gave his support for the Brady bill more than lip service: He went off to the White House to lobby his old vice president, George Bush, to change his mind and come out for it. President Bush has steadfastly opposed the legislation.
Mr. Bush said he would listen, and his staff said Mr. Reagan's endorsement was prompting a softening of Mr. Bush's opposition.
But had Mr. Reagan's new support for gun control turned Mr. Bush around, Mr. Reagan was asked later. "I'm trying to," Mr. Reagan said during a day filled with nostalgia and with what must have been difficult recollections for his wife, Nancy.
She was honored at the university convocation with an emergency-room plaque praising her for acting as "an inspiration" to those who come to the medical facility "to be with a loved one."
Her eyes glistened with tears as she listened to the university's president recall the horrifying hours after Mr. Hinckley, using a gun that had belonged to his father, shot Mr. Reagan, Mr. Brady, a Secret Service agent and a police officer.
"She's always been his everything," said university President Stephen J. Trachtenberg.
Mrs. Reagan recalled for the gathering, "I was so afraid I would leave this hospital alone."
Mr. Reagan, grayer than on his only other visit to Washington as ex-president, in November 1989, was in his usual remarkable form. He told self-deprecating jokes, sported a jaunty pink shirt and embraced a tiny redheaded nurse.
Mr. Reagan had written in his memoirs how he regretted never having been able to find the nurse who held his hand during some frightening moments after the assassination attempt.
"I was lying on the gurney only half-conscious when I realized that someone was holding my hand. It was a soft, feminine hand. I felt it come up and touch mine and then hold on tight to it. It gave me a wonderful feeling. Even now, I find it difficult to explain how reassuring, how wonderful it felt.
"I had wanted to tell her how much the touch of her hand had meant to me, but I was never able to do that," he wrote.
Mr. Reagan got his chance yesterday, when he and nurse Denise Sullivan were reunited with hugs and hand-holding.
Also on hand were Jerry Parr, the now-retired Secret Service agent who pushed Mr. Reagan into his limousine, out of harm's way; Edwin W. Meese III, Mr. Reagan's controversial second attorney general; his media maestro, Michael K. Deaver; his first U.N. ambassador, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick; and Paul Laxalt, confidant and former campaign chairman.
Reagan on guns
"There are more than 20,000 gun control laws in effect, federal, state and local, in the United States. . . . They didn't seem to prevent a fellow a few weeks ago from carrying one down by the Hilton Hotel. In other words, they are unenforceable."
-- June 16, 1981
"It's just plain common sense that there be a waiting period to allow local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on those who wish to buy a handgun. I support the Brady bill, and I urge Congress to enact it without further delay."
! -- March 28, 1991