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Gun control advocate Sarah Brady dies at 73

Last Updated Apr 4, 2015 8:06 AM EDT

Sarah Brady, a decades-long gun control advocate whose late husband was paralyzed in the 1981 assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan, died Friday of pneumonia. She was 73.

"Sarah fought the good fight her whole life," Brady's family said in a statement, calling her "a voice of strength, love and encouragement... She inspired others, showing that one person could make a difference and change the world -- which she did."

Her late husband, former White House Press Secretary James Brady, was shot in the head on March 30, 1981, when John Hinkley tried to assassinate Reagan. He was the most seriously injured of the four people wounded, including the president, and suffered permanent paralysis on his left side before he died in August 2014.

"Just over 34 years ago, we shared an experience that bonded us for life, as we comforted each other in a tiny, windowless office at the George Washington University Hospital Emergency Room, while awaiting word about whether our husbands would survive the horrific gunshots that had brought them there," former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement.

"Sarah and Jim's path from that day on was, of course, much more difficult than Ronnie's and mine, but Sarah never complained," Mrs. Reagan said. "Over the years, I found her to be a woman of immense courage, strength and optimism."

After the shooting, the Bradys became heavily involved in efforts to lobby for better gun control with The Center to Prevent Handgun Violence and Handgun Control, Inc.

In 2000, the organizations merged and were renamed The Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence in the couple's honor. Sarah Brady served as its chairwoman.

They helped secure passage of the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, which instituted background checks on those purchasing guns from licensed dealers. The Brady Campaign credits the law from stopping more than 2 million sales to prohibited purchasers.

In a statement, Brady Campaign and Center President Dan Gross said the legislation, which took more than six years to pass Congress, "has prevented more than 2.4 million sales of firearms to criminals and other dangerous people and remains, by far, the most significant achievement in the history of the gun violence prevention movement."

"Sarah Brady took the tragedy of her husband's shooting and turned it into a movement that saved tens of thousands of lives," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, who wrote the Brady Law. "She was strong and forceful, sweet and kind, and someone I considered a friend and patriot for decades. She was a true hero and will be missed by America."

After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, Sarah Brady told CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews that it was "a huge moment" for gun control.

"You can go your whole life and see no one shot, but when something happens like what happened to these children, that wakes up every mom and dad, every brother and sister in the country," she said.

Ultimately, though, no new legislation made it through Congress after that shooting.

"The fact is no law is going to be perfect... but they do help, if they save any lives they're worth it," Brady said.