Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 7: Gun Control

Here we come to what will probably be the last post in this series. Reagan was the first presidential candidate endorsed by the NRA, shortly after it shifted from a largely nonpartisan, pro-gun control organization to a pro-Republican, anti-gun control organization. In death, he has been invoked to defend gun rights. One meme of Reagan reads, “Survives Bullet Wound From Assassination Attempt; Continued to Protect Gun Rights for Citizens.” This statement is only true in the sense that, like most American presidents, Reagan never explicitly disputed the very basic right of citizens to own some sorts of firearms under certain conditions. In that sense, Barack Obama protected gun rights for citizens. But if “protected gun rights for citizens” means that Reagan was a firm opponent of excessive restrictions on gun ownership, then the claim is incorrect.

Many, though not all, of America’s early gun control laws were aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of black people and thus preventing slave rebellions and later on, rebellions against Jim Crow. Long after the days of slavery, race arguably played a role in stricter gun control in California. In 1965, a long history of systemic racism led to the Watts Riots. The following year, the Black Panther Party was formed. I will not attempt to sanitize the Black Panther Party. There was plenty to criticize about the organization, as well as some major commendable aspects. Nonetheless, it is true that the organization emerged in response to systemic racism, which Reagan did his part in perpetuating. According to PBS.org, “Members of the BPP would listen to police calls on a short wave radio, rush to the scene of the arrest with law books in hand and inform the person being arrested of their constitutional rights. BPP members also happened to carry loaded weapons, which were publicly displayed, but were careful to stand no closer than ten feet from the arrest so as not to interfere with the arrest.” In 1967, the California state government passed a law called the Mulford Bill “prohibiting the carrying of firearms on one’s person or in a vehicle, in any public place or on any public street.” There is no way of proving that this bill was solely a response to the Black Panther Party, and it is quite possible that there were other contributing factors. Nevertheless, there is also no disputing the fact that fear of the Black Panther Party, both from legitimately anti-racist people and from bigots, played a major role in the Mulford Bill. The press nicknamed it “the Panther Bill.” Reagan signed it. He also signed a state law imposing a mandatory 15-day waiting period for gun purchases; someone needing an emergency purchase to protect themselves from a stalker was out of luck. The waiting period in the law that Reagan signed was three times as long as the one that would later be contained in the Brady Bill. (More on that later.)

As president, Reagan hobnobbed with the NRA but walked a tightrope on gun issues. He signed the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which was popular with many gun rights activists and weakened the Gun Control Act of 1968. But this new legislation included a ban on fully automatic rifles. After his presidency, Reagan defended stricter gun control measures on at least three occasions. The month after he left office, Reagan gave a speech in which he stated, “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense. ” Nonetheless, “I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.” In a 1991 editorial, he wrote in support of the Brady Bill and went so far as to defend the portion of the bill mandating a seven-day waiting period for gun purchases (reduced to five before passage). Reagan asserted that, “since many handguns are acquired in the heat of passion (to settle a quarrel, for example) or at times of depression brought on by potential suicide, the Brady bill would provide a cooling-off period that would certainly have the effect of reducing the number of handgun deaths.” Additionally, he lumped mentally ill people, even those with no criminal records or pattern of violent behavior, with murderers. He asserted, “While there has been a Federal law on the books for more than 20 years that prohibits the sale of firearms to felons, fugitives, drug addicts and the mentally ill, it has no enforcement mechanism and basically works on the honor system, with the purchaser filling out a statement that the gun dealer sticks in a drawer.” No one would deny that some handguns are bought spur of the moment for murders or suicides. Yet as referenced earlier, waiting periods also penalize people in imminent danger from stalkers or other criminals in situations when police are unable or unwilling to protect them. Representative Bernie Sanders voted against the bill, creating a bizarrely humorous dichotomy: a Democratic Socialist was to the left of a conservative icon on gun control.

In 1994, Reagan joined with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in signing a letter supporting a federal assault weapons ban. Reagan’s position on assault weapons was an implicit contradiction of what he had written in a 1975 edition of the Guns and Ammo magazine to gin up support for a primary challenge to Ford. “The gun … ” Reagan had written, “insures that the people are the equal of their government whenever that government forgets that it is servant and not master of the governed. When the British forgot that they got a revolution.” Of course, Reagan was well aware that a traditional shotgun is great “for sporting, for hunting and so forth” but not so great for overthrowing a tyrannical government. Generally, armed insurrections against oppressive regimes require assault rifles to have any chance of success. Thus, to appeal to gun owners, Reagan correctly praised gun rights as a tool for a revolution if the government became tyrannical. At the same time, he supported laws to ban precisely the type of weapons needed for a revolution if the government became tyrannical.

These seven blog posts do not represent the full extent of Reagan’s support for big government. I have not discussed his belief in the right of the State to put people to death, his suggestion that “maybe we should not have humored” Native Americans by allowing them tribal sovereignty, his support for military interventionism, or various other policies and views. At the same time, I would not claim that he favored big government in all areas. On many but not all economic issues, Reagan did support reducing government. While he was generally not good on free speech issues, he did at least oppose the Fairness Doctrine. And on immigration, Reagan was at least somewhat libertarian, with his support for amnesty and his acknowledgement, after some prodding, of the cruelty of Japanese American internment. Few people and very few politicians are statist on all issues or libertarian on all issues. Nonetheless, the idea that Reagan (or conservatives in general) were or are strongly for small government in general cannot stand up under close scrutiny. That idea is an “alternative fact.”

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