The Gipper. The Great Communicator. Ronald the
For many, President Ronald Reagan stands as the paragon of conservative principles, American values, and Republican might. Reagan led what is still considered the Golden Age of American conservatism, and Grand Old Party presidents have been measured by his 6’1” standard ever since.
But when it comes to gun control, Reagan’s legacy is less clean cut than his signature style. Answering this article’s titular question is, in a word, fraught. Complicated. Contentious. (Ok, three words.)
Reagan was the victim of a gun-wielding, would-be assassin in 1981, but five years later signed the important piece of pro-gun legislation since the Second Amendment. He was both an NRA member and a supporter of the Brady Bill. He spoke out in favor of shooting sports and called AK-47’s “machine guns.”
Much depends on one’s definition of “anti-gun.” If supporting any type of firearms regulation warrants the anti-gun label, then Reagan falls into that category. But if truly anti-gun individuals must support gun confiscation a la Australia, then Reagan probably gets a pass.
I won’t pretend to have a direct line into Reagan’s psyche. At any point in his career he may have acted out of sincere belief or political expedience. Is the real Reagan the man who signed the Firearms Owners Protection Act or the one who wrote a letter supporting the 1994 “assault weapons” ban?
The answer, of course, is “both.” Reagan’s views likely changed over time, but his legacy should be judged on the sum total of his actions, not on what he did or said in one particular moment.
Post-Presidency Support for Gun Control
Reagan’s stance on guns most recently drew national attention in 2013 when then-president Barack Obama cited The Gipper in his push for a renewed “assault weapons” ban: “A majority of Americans agree with” a ban on assault weapons, Obama said in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre. “And by the way, so did Ronald Reagan.”
Obama’s evocation of the Republican saint drew ire from the right, but he wasn’t wrong. In 1994 Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan penned a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives encouraging Congress to pass the gun ban.
“We are writing to urge your support for a ban on the domestic manufacture of military-style assault weapons,” the letter began. “This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety.”
The three former presidents cited the 1989 ban on “assault weapon” imports to prove that “we can dry up the supply of these guns” and make them “less accessible to criminals.”
Reagan’s stance on this issue shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Five years earlier he called AK-47’s “machine guns” in his response to a question about hunting, conservation, and military style weapons:
In the clip above, a USC student asks whether taking “military style” weapons away from criminals would lead to gun confiscation from hunters who support conservation.
Reagan responds, in part, “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen to own guns for sporting, for hunting and so forth or for home defense. But I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for the defense of the home.”
Reagan’s remarks wouldn’t pass pro-gun muster by today’s standards, and his support for the 1994 “assault weapons” ban may have been the straw the broke the camel’s back.
“The vote on the assault weapon ban was contentious and barely passed the House of Representatives,” notes Andrew Kaczynski over at (gag) Buzzfeed. “At least two members of the House of Representatives credited Reagan with influencing their votes. The bill passed 216-214, a margin of two votes.”
Kaczynski names two Congressmen who were supposedly swayed by Reagan’s words, but does not provide evidence for his claims. Still, the weight of Reagan’s influence no doubt helped in some way to pass the infamous 10-year ban.
Reagan’s support of the Brady Bill represents his second major vote in favor of stricter gun regulations. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was signed by President Clinton in 1993 and instituted background checks for all firearm purchases from FFLs as well as a five-day waiting period. While the waiting period has since been revoked, all firearm purchasers must still pass a background check when buying a gun from a licensed dealer.
In a 1991 op-ed entitled “Why I’m for the Brady Bill,” Reagan recounted the attempt on his life ten years earlier: “Four lives were changed forever, and all by a Saturday-night special — a cheaply made .22 caliber pistol — purchased in a Dallas pawnshop by a young man with a history of mental disturbance.”
“This nightmare might never have happened if legislation that is before Congress now — the Brady bill — had been law back in 1981,” Reagan said.
The Brady Bill passed two years after Reagan voiced his support.
Actions Speak Louder than Words
Reagan supporters point out that the late President made many of his pro-gun control statements after he left office. The Gipper may have privately favored stricter firearms regulations, but he didn’t use his power to pursue that agenda. If Reagan were truly “anti-gun,” wouldn’t he have used his substantial power as President to pass more gun control?
Gun control proponents certainly saw his inauguration as a step in the wrong direction.
“One of the darkest hours for handgun control advocates was the election of Ronald Reagan,” wrote the New York Times in 1981. “Suddenly, with Mr. Reagan’s inauguration, the battle shifted from winning passage of stiffer handgun control legislation to trying to keep the conservative tide in Congress from sweeping away laws already on the books.”
Anti-gunner fear turned out to be well-founded. Five years after he took office, Reagan signed the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which effectively saved the firearms industry from ATF abuse.
Prior to the FOPA, ATF agents used their power under the Gun Control Act of 1968 to harass firearms owners, collectors, and dealers nationwide. As Dave Hardy outlines for the NRA-ILA, the Gun Control Act did not require the ATF to prove criminal intent in its prosecution of illegal firearm sales. Private individuals who sold too many guns per year without a federal firearms license were targeted and convicted, even if they did not understand the convoluted web of firearm regulations.
Firearms dealers who sold guns from their private collection had their entire inventories seized, and, even after charges were dropped, the feds were under no obligation to return their property.
Abuses of the Gun Control Act became so widespread that the NRA-ILA secured a congressional hearing. Following testimony from the firearms dealers, Sen. Dennis DeConcini said, “The problem appears much greater in scope and more acute in intensity than I have imagined. It is a sobering experience to listen to average, law-abiding citizens presenting evidence of conduct by an official law enforcement agency of the federal government that borders on the criminal.”
The Firearm Owners Protection Act sought to correct these abuses and protect the firearms industry from the federal government. It instituted a wide variety of reforms, the most important of which are listed below:
- Required the government to prove criminal intent on the part of firearms owners.
- Clarified “engaged in the business of” to include only those who bought and sold firearms for a living.
- Required the government to pay the owner’s attorney’s fees in the event the owner won their case.
- Required the government to return the owner’s firearms if the owner won their case.
- Prohibited more than one annual search of a gun store’s records.
- Allowed dealers to sell firearms at gun shows.
The bill’s only capitulation to the anti-gun lobby was its increased restrictions on the ability of individuals to own fully automatic weapons. Many have criticized this portion of the bill (rightfully so), but, on the whole, it represents a major win for firearms owners.
Hardy articulates the bill’s significance well: “Would we have survived this far if, for the last 25 years, gun dealers had been subject to arrest on paperwork errors and their entire inventories confiscated even if they were found not guilty; and gun shows had regularly seen half a dozen honest collectors hauled away in handcuffs?”
Reagan oversaw the passage of the FOPA and signed it into law in 1986. In that moment Reagan lived up to his reputation as a defender of the freedoms of the American people. While his subsequent actions would throw that reputation into jeopardy, it’s difficult to argue that Reagan was anti-gun in the same way as Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Chuck Schumer are anti-gun today.
Why the Change?
Still, Reagan’s stance on guns seems remarkably inconsistent. How could a lifetime NRA member support the ’94 “assault weapons” ban and the Brady Bill, two of the biggest gun control victories in recent memory?
Some of Reagan’s apparent inconsistency might be explained by the noting differences between gun culture today and gun culture in the 80s. Times have changed, especially in terms of semi-automatic sporting rifles like the AR-15 and the AK-47.
Where before these rifles were used primarily for target shooting, today thousands of hunters and shooters use AR-15s for hunting and 3-Gun competitions. It’s tough to claim, as Reagan did in 1989, that these firearms have no place in the world of hunting and shooting sports. If he were alive today, he may have changed his mind.
It’s also worth noting Reagan’s extraordinary speech at the 1983 NRA Convention. He vowed to “never disarm any American who seeks to protect his or her family from fear and harm.” He stressed the importance of constitutional freedoms as “every American’s birthright” and noted that gun control is the first step towards total confiscation of all law-abiding citizens’ guns. He even observed that those who want to inflict harm on others aren’t fazed by stricter gun laws.
So, was Reagan anti-gun? Sometimes. But more often, especially during his time in office, he worked to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution, including the right to keep and bear arms.
About the Author: Jordan Michaels is a new convert to the gun world. A Canadian immigrant to the United States, he recently became an American citizen and is happily enjoying his newly-acquired Second Amendment freedoms. He’s a communications professional, a political junkie, and an avid basketball fan.