There was a time when it wasn’t considered so remarkable for a president to keep guns around. But it surprised novelist Brad Meltzer, when he was researching a book recently, to discover that Ronald Reagan carried often during his stint in the White House.
Meltzer was impressed enough to write a piece on this discovery for the New York Daily News on Saturday. He relates that he was touring a small museum maintained by the U.S. Secret Service, inspecting artifacts and and discussing presidential security with his guides.
The agents had taken me into a small museum they have on the premises. It’s a room lined with photos of Presidents and archival exhibit cases filled with Secret Service artifacts. A newspaper with a “Kennedy Dead” headline. A replica of Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle. The pistol used to try to kill President Gerald Ford. They even have the actual car door from the limo when Reagan was shot.
It was an eerie keepsake for sure. But not nearly as eerie as the next detail they told me. We were talking about Reagan and that day he was shot. Then one of the agents offered this secret: When Reagan was President, he carried his own gun.
I couldn’t believe it.
“It’s true,” they said. A .38. Reagan used to hide it in his briefcase and take it on Air Force One.
Whatever you think of Reagan, you have to admit, he had a black belt in badassery.
As someone who has made quite a study of Reagan, I had the natural reaction to this article (i.e., “Me me me me me me me me!!! I knew that! I knew that!”).
Reagan had been familiar with firearms throughout his life; in 1946, in Hollywood, he even got a concealed carry permit for a S&W .32 after receiving threats against his life during a big labor union beef. (He was on the board of the Screen Actors Guild at the time. Reagan would be elected to his first term as president of SAG the following year.) He carried the .32 for several years, although he reported in his 1965 autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, that he eventually decided to stop carrying when things quieted down.
When Reagan stories were proliferating right after his passing in June 2004, WND had one from a woman whom he rescued from an attempted street hold-up in 1933 – by brandishing a .45 at the perp and threatening to shoot him. Reagan was 22 at the time, and worked as a sportscaster for radio station WHO in Iowa.
More than 70 years ago, as IowaChannel.com reports, long-time Iowa resident Melba King was a 22-year-old nursing student.
The year was 1933, and on a hot, humid autumn night, as Melba was strolling home in downtown Des Moines, she felt a gun in her back. A mugger had stolen up behind her and was demanding money.
But someone was watching out for Melba – a young Des Moines radio sportscaster named Ronald Wilson Reagan who had overheard the confrontation and immediately sprang to her rescue. Reagan pointed a .45-caliber revolver at the would-be robber from the window of the second-story rented room he lived in.
“And he said, ‘Leave her alone or I’ll shoot you right between the shoulders,’” King recently told KCCI-TV.”
The scared mugger ran off, and Reagan went out to comfort King and walk her home.
“You stay right where you are, and I’ll go get my robe and slippers and walk over with you,” the youthful Reagan told her, according to King’s vivid recollection.
Reagan didn’t tell this story on himself in either of his two autobiographies. But he certainly remembered the event, and Melba King, when they met years later.
[I]n 1984…Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad asked her to attend a Republican campaign event.
Embracing on stage, Reagan laughed as he quipped to the audience and King: “This is the first time I’ve had a chance to tell you – the gun was empty! I didn’t have any cartridges! If he hadn’t run when I told him to, I was going to have to throw it at him!”
Accounts of Reagan’s carry practices during his years in the Oval Office vary slightly, although sources are united on the type of weapon he kept with him: a 1934 Walther PPK .380. Close associates and Secret Service sources confirm that he carried it in a briefcase. The only point of variance is the estimate of how often he had it with him. Some sources say every day; others seem to suggest it was less regularly.*
Ron Kessler made waves of his own in 2009 when he stated in his book In the President’s Secret Service that Reagan had the .38 in his briefcase on his state visit to Moscow in 1988.
A former Secret Service agent remembers that when Reagan was running for president the first time, he came out of his home in Bel Air to drive to Rancho del Cielo, the 700-acre Reagan ranch near Santa Barbara. Another agent noticed that he was wearing a pistol and asked what that was for. “Well, just in case you guys can’t do the job, I can help out,” Reagan replied. 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.
In December 1980, shortly before Reagan took office, Nancy Reagan told an interviewer that even she had a small gun in the bedroom for protection. (During some of the union shenanigans that punctuated Reagan’s time at the helm of SAG, there was an attack on the Reagans’ home with fireworks and possible gunshots. Nancy was alone there with the kids at the time. Reagan didn’t want her to be without the means to defend herself.)
Although this video isn’t about Reagan wielding a handgun or discussing gun rights, it seemed to fitting to include it as the sign-off for this post. There’s nothing like an old TV clip (this one from before my time, in fact) to transport you back to the mindset and feel of a different era. I think you’ll recognize the guy acting with Reagan in this 1954 episode of GE Theater.
* Fortunately, the web saves me the trouble of having to dig up citations by lugging around a pile of books from my Reagan/Cold War stash, and hunting through pages. The information is in Paul Kengor’s 2006 book The Crusader, as well as in Edmund Morris’s 1999 Dutch. A records custodian at the Reagan Library provided the following in a letter responding to an inquiry from a Brian Pfleuger at the online Firing Line forum:
On page 276 of Reagan’s Autobiography he wrote that he always kept a gun in the house for home protection. Also in the book Dutch, Morris writes on page 237 that the movie studio police licensed Reagan to carry a .32 Smith and Wesson for protection due to threats. There had been threats of acid attacks again Reagan at the time. And finally in page 709 (the footnotes of Dutch) it is mentioned that Reagan carried a 1934 Walther PPK .380 pocket pistol that he acquired during his days in Des Moines. Reagan said he carried the pistol in his briefcase, even while he was president.