History

Ronald Reagan may have been packing heat the entire time he was President

A post-presidency rumor says that Ronald Regan carried a loaded pistol in that case, something far better than a cheap six-shooter.
ronald reagan
Ronald Reagan waves just before he is shot.

When John Hinkley, Jr. attempted to assassinate newly-inaugurated President Ronald Reagan with six shots from a Saturday Night Special revolver, it wasn’t just Reagan who got lucky. All six shots missed the president. He was hit by a ricochet that collapsed his lung and hit dangerously close to his heart. Hinkley also might have been lucky that day: lucky the president wasn’t carrying his briefcase. A post-presidency rumor says that Ronald Regan carried a loaded pistol in that case, something far better than a cheap six-shooter. Hinkley might have been lucky the president wasn’t able to return fire.

Thriller novelist Brad Meltzer, author of many books, including “The Escape Artist” and “The Lightning Rod,” wrote a blog for the New York Daily News, repeating a longtime assertion by the Secret Service: The President of the United States was strapped and loaded between 1981 and 1989.

Reagan had a lot of enemies, to be sure. The Soviet Union, House Speaker Tip O’Neil and Waler Mondale, just to name a few. John Hinkley, Jr. doesn’t even top the list because there was nothing personal about the assassination attempt; he was just killing presidents for Jodie Foster. Hinkley was stalking Jimmy Carter the year before. Why Reagan felt the need to protect himself is a bit of a mystery.

Meltzer says he was in the headquarters building of the U.S. Secret Service, admiring the agency’s museum of its own history. They had the gun used on President Gerald Ford, a newspaper from the day President John F. Kennedy was killed, and even the limousine door that took a shot from Hinkley’s revolver.

As he toured the artifacts, a Secret Service agent leaned in and told the author that Reagan packed a .38 in his briefcase whenever he was on Air Force One. When Meltzer called up President George H.W. Bush, to ask if he’d ever seen the pistol, it was the first Bush knew about it. But Reagan’s executive aide Jim Kuhn says it’s absolutely true.

Kuhn confirmed to Time Magazine that he’d once caught a glimpse of the Gipper’s loaded .38 peeking out of Reagan’s briefcase. Kuhn would often look for documents in the president’s briefcase.

“I saw the gun one time in his briefcase, one single time,” Kuhn said. “And that was it.”

john hinkley ronald reagan shooter
Agents Brady and Delahanty lie wounded on the ground. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Kuhn’s recollection is at odds with other officials who were close to the former president during his White House days. Biographer David Woodward, journalist Lou Cannon, and Ken Duberstein, Reagan’s former chief of staff, all cast doubt on the truth of the story, believing it to be so outlandish that they don’t know how anyone could believe it.

There are some who have documented Ronald Reagan’s life extensively who do believe the president was packing heat. Garry Wills has written two books about Reagan and his life, and he says the president acquired a .380 after college in the 1930s. He says the president loved it so much that he kept it for the rest of his days.

Ronald Kessler’s 2009 book repeats the Secret Service agent’s version of the story. In “The President’s Secret Service” Keller retells the story of an agent asking Reagan why he had a pistol on his hip, to which Regan replied. “Well, just in case you guys can’t do the job, I can help out.”

Hinkley, it turns out, dodged a bullet.