President Ronald Reagan will forever be remembered fondly by Second Amendment supporters, many of who are among the American conservatives who consider Reagan a poster child of modern conservatism. But words and actions of Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, left behind a mixed record on gun rights.
His presidential administration did not bring about any new gun control laws of significance. However, in his post-presidency, Reagan cast his support to a pair of critical gun control measures in the 1990s: 1993’s Brady Bill and 1994’s Assault Weapons Ban.
Reagan: The Pro Gun Candidate
Ronald Reagan entered the 1980 presidential campaign as a known supporter of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. While gun rights wouldn’t be a primary issue in presidential politics for another decade, the issue was being pushed to the forefront of the American political scene by those, as Reagan wrote in a 1975 issue of Guns & Ammo magazine, “who say that gun control is an idea whose time has come.” The Gun Control Act of 1968 was still a relatively fresh issue, and U.S. Attorney General Edward H. Levi had proposed outlawing guns in areas with high crime rates.
In his Guns & Ammo column, Reagan left little doubt about his stance on the Second Amendment, writing: “In my opinion, proposals to outlaw or confiscate guns are simply unrealistic panacea.”
Reagan’s stance was that violent crime would never be eliminated, with or without gun control. Instead, he said, efforts to curb crime should target those who misuse guns, similarly to the way laws target those who use an automobile feloniously or recklessly. Saying the Second Amendment “leaves little, if any, leeway for the gun control advocate,” he added that “the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms must not be infringed if liberty in America is to survive.”
Firearm Owners Protection Act
The lone piece of significant legislation related to gun rights during the Reagan administration was the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986. Signed into law by Reagan on May 19, 1986, the legislation amended the Gun Control Act of 1968 by repealing parts of the original act that were deemed by studies to be unconstitutional.
The National Rifle Association and other pro gun groups lobbied for passage of the legislation, and it was generally considered favorable for gun owners. Among other things, the act made it easier to transport long rifles across the United States, ended federal records-keeping on ammunition sales and prohibited the prosecution of someone passing through areas with strict gun control with firearms in their vehicle, so long as the gun were properly stored.
However, the act also contained a provision banning the ownership of any fully automatic firearms not registered by May 19, 1986. That provision was slipped into the legislation as an 11th hour amendment by Rep. William J. Hughes, a New Jersey Democrat. Reagan has been criticized by some gun owners for signing legislation containing the Hughes amendment.
Post-Presidency Gun Views
Before Reagan left office in January 1989, efforts were afoot in Congress to pass legislation creating a national background check and mandatory waiting period for handgun purchases. The Brady Bill, as the legislation was named, had the backing of Sarah Brady, the wife of former Reagan press secretary Jim Brady, who was wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt on the president.
The Brady Bill initially struggled for support in Congress, but was gaining ground by the latter days of Reagan’s predecessor, President George H.W. Bush. In a 1991 op-ed for the New York Times, Reagan voiced his support for the Brady Bill, saying the 1981 assassination attempt might have never happened if the Brady Bill had been law.
Citing statistics suggesting 9,200 murders are committed each year in the United States using handguns, Reagan said, “This level of violence must be stopped. Sarah and Jim Brady are working hard to do that, and I say more power to them.” It was a 180 degree turn from Reagan’s 1975 piece in Guns & Ammo magazine, when he said that gun control is pointless because murder cannot be prevented.
Three years later, Congress had passed the Brady Bill and was working on another piece of gun control legislation, a ban on assault weapons. Reagan joined former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in a letter published in the Boston Globe that called on Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons. Later, in a letter to Rep. Scott Klug, a Wisconsin Republican, Reagan said the limitations proposed by the Assault Weapon Ban “are absolutely necessary” and that it “must be passed.” Klug voted in favor of the ban.
End Result of Reagan Presidency on Gun Rights
The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 will be remembered as an important piece of legislation for gun rights. However, Reagan also cast his support behind the two most controversial pieces of gun control legislation of the past 30 years. His support of the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994 may have directly led to the ban winning the approval of Congress. Congress passed the ban by a vote of 216-214. In addition to Klug voting for the ban after Reagan’s last minute plea, Rep. Dick Swett, D-N.H., also credited Reagan’s support of the bill for helping him decide to cast a favorable vote.
A more lasting impact of Reagan’s policy on guns was the nomination of several Supreme Court justices. Of the four justices nominated by Reagan — Sandra Day O’Connor, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy — the latter two were still on the bench for a pair of important Supreme Court rulings on gun rights in the 2000s: District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 and McDonald v. Chicago in 2010. Both sided with a narrow, 4-3 majority in striking down gun bans in Washington D.C. and Chicago while ruling that the Second Amendment applies to individuals and the states.