Reagan and Assault Weapons

I’ve blogged before about demandaplan.org and their annoying celebrity video shoot. Now I’m seeing links to a quote that they lifted from Ronald Reagan’s 78th birthday speech, given weeks after he’d left office.

I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense. But I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.

The quote is genuine, and it is not taken out of context. You can watch a video of it on C-Span. The relevant clip is about 45min. in during the question and answer session. In fact, not only does President Reagan defend a ban on “machine guns” (actually, an AK-47 is not a machine gun, but never mind), he also defends California’s waiting period and background checks for gun purchases. So, while he makes it clear that he is opposed to comprehensive gun bans, he’s not exactly in the NRA camp either. This will be disappointing to a lot of people.

But I have to wonder whether it’s entirely fair to take a quote from 1989, freeze it in time, and then apply it to our current situation. Let me show you what I mean.

It turns out that in 1994, President Reagan also cosigned a letter with Presidents Ford and Carter supporting the assault weapons ban that was being debated at the time. Let’s look at their reasoning:

The 1989 import ban resulted in an impressive 40% drop in imported assault weapons traced to crime between 1989 and 1991, but the killing continues. … While we recognize that assault weapon legislation will not stop assault weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals.

The full text of the letter is available on Snopes – I’ve just pulled together the bits that I believe are at the heart of their argument.
It is a realistic argument. The idea is that if we can make the weapons harder to get, and presumably more expensive, there won’t be as many of them floating about, even if there will still be some.

Alright, let’s do a quick check. It’s claimed that the ban on imported assault weapons resulted in a 40% reduction in imports being used in crime. I can’t find any evidence to support that, but it seems plausible, if only because (a) they’ve clearly cherry-picked their years (the letter in question was written for 1994; why not include at least 1992 and 1993?) and (b) because the banned imports had easy substitutes in domestic weapons.

Now, this was in 1994. The assault weapons ban was scheduled to expire, and did expire, in 2004 – which means the data is in on whether it was effective. And the conclusion is pretty much no, not really. To be sure, there are people who defend it on empirical grounds and would like to see it renewed – there is some room for debate – but the general academic consensus is that the assault weapons ban isn’t responsible for any reduction in violence in the United States.

The convenient thing for people who want to quote Reagan about assault weapons bans is that the Reagan we’re quoting obviously didn’t know any of that. His Alzheimer’s became accute around 1994, and he more or less dropped out of the public eye. By the time the ban expired, he had died.

It’s an interesting question whether the ban’s ineffectiveness would have changed Reagan’s mind. On the one hand, he went into office in 1980 seen as a strong supporter of gun rights. Indeed, he wrote an op-ed in Guns and Ammo in 1975 calling “proposals to outlaw or confiscate guns” (then stronger than they are now on account of the 1968 Gun Control Act) “unrealistic panacea.” He lays out just about every case a gun rights supporter could want: the Second Amendment argument, the right to self-defense, the idea that arming and training people would be a better deterrent to gun crime than confiscation, even the idea that people need to arm themselves as protection against government tyranny. Furthermore, Mr. Reagan himself owned assault weapons that he obtained after his 1989 speech – at least, ones that were given as gifts. On the other hand, the wording in the letter to the House is clear, and he did, after all, come out in public support of the Brady Bill, which enforced a national background check system.

Probably the most honest reading of all this is that Mr. Reagan was a strong believer in the right of citizens to keep and bear arms, but that he believed in some common sense bureaucratic restrictions on that right. So, he has no problem with submtiting to a background check, provided guns continue to be available for purchase by everyone who is not a felon. He believes most guns should be legal, but he draws the line a bit differently from the NRA (which, last I checked, doesn’t not support private ownership of nuclear weapons, tanks, surface-to-air missiles, etc.). Anything that has a purely military application should not be in civilian hands.

Now, there’s plenty of room to disagree with Mr. Reagan on principles there, but my purpose here is just to question whether the quotation currently making the rounds is fair. In my judgment, it’s not. If Reagan was indeed basically a supporter of gun rights, as his political record and writings seem to indicate, who was willing to put up with slighly more restrictions than the NRA was willing to concede, then I think there’s a good case to be made that after trying a 10 year assault weapons ban and seeing it proven ineffective, he would have switched his position on the matter.

No, I don’t know that to a certainty. And so I will not be going around writing articles saying what I think Mr. Reagan would or wouldn’t have thought about contemporary issues based on things he said a quarter of a century ago in the twilight of his life. I think other people should have the same decency. It’s true enough that there are fair extrapolations from the historical record. For example, if you quoted Margaret Thatcher in the context of criticizing President Obama’s opposition to secret ballot union voting, you’d be right on point. Opposing the unions was pretty much her life quest, and requiring secret ballots in union voting was a key part of her platform both as opposition leader in the latter half of the 1970s, and as Prime Minister in the 1980s. In 1984, she made good on the promise and passed a requirement that strikes be approved by secret ballot. There are hundreds of quotes from her on the matter, and they’re entirely consistent.

I don’t think Reagan’s position on assault weapons bans can be characterized in such unequivocal terms. In some contexts, he talks a good NRA party line. In others, he talks a good Brady Center line. In either context, he’s careful to voice support for the right of citizens to keep and bear arms. The only clear argument for the assault weapons ban he ever advanced that I’m aware of was entirely empirical, and the available data now shows that the bill he was quoting it to support was not effective. No, I don’t know whether Reagan, were he alive today, would support a renewal of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. But then, neither do the people who are lifting his 1989 quote – and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the point.

Of course it’s your right as a citizen to support whatever bill you like, so if you think a renewed Federal Assault Weapons Ban is a good idea, you are certainly free to make the case. But please do it with facts and logic, and not with “gotcha” references to statements made decades ago by people who are no longer around to speak on their own behalf.

One thought on “Reagan and Assault Weapons

  1. I agree with the quote that AK 47’s and any semi-automatic rifles should not be given to non-military personnel for personal use. If you just want a firearm to protect your house and family a handgun would be sufficient enough.

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