Reagan's Pistol and the Myth of a Good Guy with a Gun

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tags: guns, gun control, Reagan, Gun Laws



Rick Perlstein is the Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.

This past June, pulp novelist Brad Meltzer revealed that, while he was touring Secret Service headquarters for research on a White House thriller, agents shared with him what Meltzer called a “secret.” President Ronald Reagan packed heat. “It’s true,” they said. “A .38. Reagan used to hide it in his briefcase and take it on Air Force One.”

Not a secret, actually. Edmund Morris said the same thing in Dutch. And Ronald Kessler’s In the President’s Secret Service reported that “Reagan confided to one agent that on his first presidential trip to the Soviet Union in May 1988, he had carried a gun in his briefcase.” Kessler also wrote that an agent protecting Reagan during his 1976 presidential run asked why he was wearing a pistol. Reagan replied, “Well, just in case you guys can’t do the job, I can help out.”

It wasn’t news then, but Meltzer’s retelling of the story got legs. Reagan loyalists and apologists came out of the woodwork, howling. David C. Fischer, a special assistant during Reagan’s first term, told TIME magazine, “I never saw a gun in his briefcase.” Kenneth Duberstein, Reagan’s last White House chief of staff and a consummate K Street insider, said he had “no reason to believe it’s true.” Lou Cannon, whose Reagan chronicles evolved over 50 years from astringent to sycophantic, averred, “It’s so off the wall that I don’t know what to say. I think it’s fantasy, at best.” Historian H.W. Brands, whose recent biography was distinguished by the curious methodological decision of taking Reagan’s own accounts of his past at face value, offered, “I’ll believe the evidence when I see it.”

Then, we saw that evidence. Reagan’s longtime body man Jim Kuhn reported seeing the gun in Reagan’s briefcase (but only once). Biographer Craig Shirley, on the other hand—a conservative movement activist who has established an identity defying Washington insiders who’d seek to clean up what history might judge as Reagan’s extremism—said he’d already confirmed it with the head of Reagan’s post-presidential Secret Service detail. Shirley also reports that Reagan had begun the practice after John Hinckley’s 1981 assassination attempt, that he “routinely” brought the gun aboard flights on Air Force One and Marine One, that he’d defied both Nancy and the Secret Service to do so (“Who’s going to say no to the President?”), and that, though Alzheimer’s-ridden, he continued the practice until the Secret Service finally took the gun from him in 1994.

The United States Secret Service is among the most highly trained and tactically sophisticated police agencies on the planet. Just to qualify for the job requires hitting a 10-inch target with a handgun four of five times in 10 seconds. A memoir by Dan Emmett, veteran of three “presidential protection details,” describes other aspects of the two-month initial training: a surprise simulation of a full-scale motorcade ambush, 20 seconds of chaos in which distinguishing civilians from attackers was rendered nearly impossible; firing so many practice rounds he could barely hold a rifle on his swollen shoulder; fighting lessons from an instructor who had so many broken bones “three digits still pointed at odd angles”; and “one hundred hours of control tactics, raid training, hand-to-hand combat, and reacting to attacks on protectees.” All this, incidentally, was just to qualify for a desk job. ...




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