How Ronald Reagan learned to love gun control
A lifelong member of the NRA, Reagan might be the most consequential president for gun control legislation in the past century
America is once again waging a rhetorical war of attrition over gun violence, after another mass shooting, this one in San Bernardino, California. We know the name of the suspects, both dead, and that one of the shooters was a coworker of the 14 people he and his wife are accused of murdering. We know it was the worst mass shooting since a lone gunman shot dead 20 small children and seven adults in a Connecticut elementary school.
We don't know the motive for the attack, but we do have some idea how this recurring battle over preventing the next mass shooting will go, and what the U.S. will end up doing (nothing). Maybe we can trip up this cycle a bit by talking about Ronald Reagan.
You can't expect Republicans to love everything about Reagan, but because today's Republicans, and notably its current crop of presidential contenders, pay such respect to America's 40th president — sorry Bushes, père and fils — Reagan provides an interesting benchmark of American politics. There are a lot of issues that Reagan would be out of step with in today's Republican Party — immigration, negotiating with global enemies, and tax hikes, to name a few that liberals like to highlight. (Though, to be fair, are any Democrats excited to defend JFK's escalation of Vietnam?) But maybe the starkest is gun control.
So as America's fight over gun laws moves to Reagan's home state of California, both sides of the gun debate — but especially proponents of stricter gun laws — can probably learn something from the Gipper. Arguably the most consequential president for gun control legislation in the past century, Reagan was also a favorite son of the National Rifle Association, gun control's most effective opponent.
Here's a look at a few gun control measures Reagan played a critical role in:
1. Banning open carry in California.
Back in 1967, says Jacob Sullum at Reason, "the NRA supported the Mulford Act, which banned open carrying of loaded firearms in California. The law, a response to the Black Panthers' conspicuous exercise of the right to armed self-defense, also was supported by Gov. Ronald Reagan." As the bill's conservative sponsor, Don Mulford (R), argued in 1989, "openly carrying a gun is an 'act of violence or near violence,'" Sullum noted. "Apparently Reagan and the NRA agreed." The Mulford Act is still on the books in California, America's most populous state.
2. Banning the sale of machine guns and other automatic weapons.
The NRA fondly cites the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 as "the most sweeping rollback of gun control laws in history." And while it did in fact roll back some of the provisions of the 1968 Gun Control Act, it also contained a provision — banning the sale of machine guns and other fully automatic weapons to civilians — that came back to haunt the NRA. Robert Spitzer, an expert on gun law, tells NPR that it was "a precedent that would open the door for restricting civilian access to semiautomatic, assault-style weapons." Congress did just that in 1994, thanks — very plausibly — to Ronald Reagan. (See below.)
3. Mandating background checks for handgun purchases.
In 1991, Reagan supported the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, named for his press secretary shot during the 1981 attempt on Reagan's life. That bill passed in 1993, mandating federal background checks and a five-day waiting period. "Every year, an average of 9,200 Americans are murdered by handguns, according to Department of Justice statistics," Reagan wrote in a 1991 op-ed for The New York Times. "This does not include suicides or the tens of thousands of robberies, rapes, and assaults committed with handguns. This level of violence must be stopped."
4. Banning assault weapons.
Despite the law being enacted well after his presidency, Reagan was credited with playing a critical role in the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, which has since expired. Reagan's personal and effective lobbying helped the bill overcome the strong objections of the NRA. "The vote on the assault weapon ban was contentious and barely passed the House of Representatives," notes Andrew Kaczynski. "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."
For anyone seeking a path toward common ground on gun control, there are interesting lessons here.
It's worth mentioning, of course, that times have changed: Modern gun-rights maximalism wasn't mainstream until about the time Reagan, a lifelong member of the NRA, became president. The NRA, for example, supported or even championed many gun control measures for most of its existence, until hardliner Harlon Carter became head of the organization in 1977, as UCLA law professor Adam Winkler detailed in The Atlantic. "Reagan's California," Winkler added, may have had "one of the strictest gun-control regimes in the nation," though Reagan's views "changed considerably" during the 1970s, too.
And that's the first lesson: Support for gun laws is cyclical, and has been since the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment. My colleague Ryan Cooper was right to say there is another federal gun regulation in America's future, at some point down the line.
If Reagan did turn against gun regulations in the 1970s, his views shifted back sometime after he was shot by John Hinckley Jr. in 1981. And that points to the second big lesson from Reagan's views on gun control: They appear to be influenced by his personal experiences with people aiming guns at him.
Reagan cited his attempted assassination in his 1991 speech backing the Brady Bill, as well as honoring the other three men wounded in the attack: Jim Brady, who was shot in the head and paralyzed; Washington, D.C., police officer Thomas Delahanty, shot in the neck and forced to retire due to nerve damage; and Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy, shot in the chest and liver. "This nightmare might never have happened if legislation that is before Congress now — the Brady bill — had been law back in 1981," Reagan said. He gave a favorable nod to Jim and Sarah Brady's work; the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which Sarah Brady led at the time, is one of the NRA's fiercest critics.
In California, Reagan threw his support behind the Mulford Act after a heavily armed group of Black Panthers gathered at the state capitol while the new governor was supposed to be hosting a group of eighth-graders for fried chicken, Winkler recounts at The Atlantic. That same afternoon, Reagan told reporters that he saw "no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons." Mulford quickly added a provision to his bill barring loaded firearms from the capitol, except for when carried by law enforcement.
Banning loaded weapons from the legislature may seem like a normal and prudent idea, but ordinary citizens could freely roam the U.S. Capitol until 1983, when a bomb detonated outside the Senate Republican cloakroom and House Minority Leader Robert Byrd's office. That wasn't the first bomb attack in the Capitol, and gunmen had fired at congressmen from the gallery in 1954, says Josh Zeitz at Politico Magazine, but after the '83 bomb congressmen finally started walling themselves off from citizens and, especially, citizens bearing arms. Even then, putting metal detectors at the door of the Capitol was controversial.
The Capitol complex has only gotten more locked down since then. Zeitz makes the obvious connection: "Ironically, as Congress has become less hospitable to gun safety laws, and as conservative Republican legislators have grown more strident in their desire to see citizens carry open and concealed weapons everywhere — in churches and schools, on college campuses, at bars and restaurants — the one venue that has grown more gun-free, more secure, and more restrictive is the building they work in."
This is wading into potentially dangerous territory, so let me be clear: The correct way to get more gun control is emphatically not to attack or threaten elected representatives. But it does seem true that when powerful constituencies feel personally threatened or aggrieved, they often appear more likely to support gun restrictions. After Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was gravely shot and six supporters and staffers killed by a gunman in 2011, for example, she dedicated herself to the cause of gun control with her husband, Cmr. Mark Kelly, a Navy veteran.
The third major lesson from Reagan is that it matters who is proposing and backing new gun laws. When we trust people, we are more likely to listen to their ideas and have faith that they have, if not our best interests at heart, at least an aversion to harming our cause. Thus, right from the start, Democrats are more likely to support policies from Democratic presidents, Republicans are more likely to support proposals from GOP presidents, and the NRA is likely to consider ideas floated by gun-rights advocates and gun owners.
The NRA trusted Reagan; it has never trusted Obama. The closest the U.S. came to getting modest new firearms restrictions this century, in 2013, the sponsors of the bill were proud gun owners Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), an opponent of gun control, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who was endorsed by the NRA in 2012, in an election where he ran a TV ad featuring him shooting a piece of environmental legislation with a rifle. The NRA and Manchin parted ways in 2013.
There is a broad middle ground on gun laws. Proponents of tighter gun control, defeated and often demoralized after years of losses, would generally be open to if not thrilled by adding some modest restrictions. So would most Americans, and a majority of gun owners. The NRA, fueled by years of wins, isn't giving ground. That's where we're at.
Ronald Reagan, probably to the surprise of both gun control advocates and opponents, occupied that area of broad consensus. If the NRA really loved Reagan, they might remember that.