Bill Clinton Recalls Enacting Gun Control Measures as a Proud Moment at Celebrity-Filled Gala
05/06/2016 AT 04:00 PM EDT
In doing so, the former chief executive, whose wife Hillary Clinton is currently the Democratic frontrunner in the presidential election, delivered a reminder to current proponents of improved weapons laws never to stop reaching across dividing political and cultural lines and take stands in the name of public safety.
“We have got to get to the point in America where we don’t have to have a mass killing to do something decent,” Clinton, 69, told the crowd at the Brady Center Bear Awards Gala at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, where he was one of the recipients of an honor for his gun violence prevention actions.
Clinton was lauded for signing the Brady Handgun Prevention Act, which introduced background checks and other cautionary provisions in the weapons-purchase process, into law in 1993. The act was named for the late former White House press secretary James “Bear” Brady, who was wounded and permanently disabled by gunfire in the 1981 assassination attempt on then-president Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr. and who subsequently became the guiding light of the Brady Center’s national efforts to quell gun violence until his death in 2014.
“One of the great honors of my life was signing the Brady law, and then a year later in the crime bill the assault weapons ban and the ammunition clip ban,” said Clinton in an impromptu 30-minute speech at an event chaired by “The Big Short” filmmaker Adam McKay and attended by celebrities including Will Ferrell, Jenna Fischer, Sarah Silverman, Michael Sheen, Rainn Wilson, Clark Gregg, Jennifer Grey and emcee Rich Eisen.
“It shows how important this subject is,” McKay told PEOPLE. “I mean, if he’s here, given what’s going on in his life with his wife, you know it’s important.”
Clinton also praised President Obama for his ongoing efforts to address the epidemic of gun violence the nation has experienced in recent years in the wake of an even more polarized political climate, including trying to extend controls to close sales loopholes at gun shows and online. “He has done every thing you can do, and I’m grateful, because you have to keep pushing this rock up the hill.”
Clinton also recalled visiting areas in the United States where mass shootings have occurred and attending events with Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who was herself wounded in an assassination attempt on her life in 2011, and he shared personal memories of growing up amid an enthusiast gun culture himself in rural Arkansas.
“When I was ten years old, I was given a .22 to shoot cans off the fence post,“ he recalled. “When I was 14 I was given a .410. But I never really enjoyed hunting very much…I never shot a deer in my life but we had to close high school on the first day of deer season because half the people weren’t going to show up anyway.”
But throughout his life and political career, Clinton added, he never gave up on the concept of reasonable gun control measures and ultimately had the opportunity to champion regulation during his presidency. The key, he urged the crowd, was not to be frustrated by the rigidly opposed political and corporate organizational efforts and reach out directly to the everyday people who may at first feel opposed but are ultimately open to reasonable, sensible measures.
“Don’t be afraid to talk to people who are skeptical, who live in different cultures and have different options,” said Clinton. “You're trying to ask them to create a little space in their mind and heart for the people who are innocent victims you are trying to save. And to do that, you have to look them in the eye, figuratively or literally.”
“I want you to redeem the loss, and the meaning of the lives [lost],” said Clinton, who warmly recalled the tenacious will of Brady and his late wife Sarah as they championed the cause against gun violence. “I want you to prove that Jim Brady did the right thing. Getting up every day and forcing himself to get dressed and dragging himself around with his severe wounds.”
“We have to be a humane society,” he concluded. “There have to be some things we can agree on that are the basic parameters of any democracy.”