Guest Column: Ronald Reagan understood gun control

Brett Joshpe

In the wake of the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., many conservatives have shown little inclination to consider new legislation on gun access. Those of us on the right who have expressed receptiveness to new proposals have been criticized within our own ranks.

By the standards of certain modern-day conservatives, however, even Ronald Reagan was a traitor to the Second Amendment and the conservative cause. After all, he signed into law gun restrictions that still exist today and was a strong voice in ensuring passage of others after his presidency.

Reagan is fondly remembered as a defender of the Constitution and of gun rights. However, while remaining true to that underlying belief, Reagan, before, during and after his presidency, supported common-sense gun restrictions that were compatible with the Second Amendment.

While still president in 1986, Reagan signed into law the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which was hailed by gun rights advocates because it included numerous protections for gun owners. However, it also banned ownership of any fully automatic rifles that were not already registered on the day the law was signed.

Then, in 1991, four years after the controversial Brady Bill was introduced in Congress and with passage again in doubt, Reagan penned an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Why I’m for the Brady Bill.” In it, he expressed support for a seven-day waiting period before a purchaser could take possession of a handgun, an even more stringent restriction than the five-day cooling-off period that was included in the final legislation, and less stringent than the 15-day cooling-off period he signed into law as governor of California. Reagan stated that prohibitions on sales to felons, drug addicts and the mentally ill had “no enforcement mechanism” and that “a uniform standard across the country” was necessary.

Regarding handguns, Reagan stated, “This level of violence must be stopped. … If the passage of the Brady Bill were to result in a reduction of only 10 or 15 percent of those numbers (and it could be a good deal greater), it would be well worth making it the law of the land.”

Finally, in 1994, Reagan successfully threw his support behind the Assault Weapons Ban in a joint letter to the Boston Globe, saying, “As a longtime gun owner and supporter of the right to bear arms … I am convinced that the limitations imposed in this bill are absolutely necessary.” The ban on assault weapons had a sunset provision and lapsed in 2004, and many gun advocates have strongly opposed any attempts to pass it again, including after the Newtown massacre.

Was Reagan a heretic, an apostate, an unprincipled Constitution shredder, an inauthentic conservative, as some have accused me of being after I suggested recently that we should support sensible gun restrictions? Of course not.

Reagan appreciated that the Second Amendment does not say whatever you want it to say and that there was nothing incompatible with those rights and appropriate safeguards. Reagan also appreciated that, politically, doing nothing in the face of carnage was unacceptable.

The brilliance of Reagan’s leadership was that, although he was a conservative, he was willing to compromise and be pragmatic. That didn’t make him unprincipled or insincere. Then again, as Jeb Bush has observed, perhaps even Reagan was unfit for the current-day version of the movement he fathered, as there exists “an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement.”

So, for conservatives so quick to accuse some of us as being insensitive to the Constitution or inauthentic in our conservatism, I say, do your homework and remember the Gipper.

Brett Joshpe is a lawyer in New York City and co-author of “Why You’re Wrong About the Right.”