blog/show

Presidential Firearms: Part I

  • Date:
  • January 24th, 2024

By: Andrew Willinger

[Revised February 12, 2024]

This post is Part I in a three-part series that will examine the personal firearm-carrying practices of U.S. presidents.  While many presidents have served in the military, these posts will focus instead on carrying guns for self-defense before, during, and after holding office. 

Former president Donald J. Trump caused a stir in September 2023 when he reportedly visited a South Carolina gun store and perused various firearms for purchase, despite being under felony indictment and thus barred from receiving (via purchase, gift, or otherwise) guns under federal law.  After initially suggesting that Trump had in fact bought a Glock handgun at the store, his campaign subsequently clarified that no purchase took place.  A video, subsequently removed from X, had shown Trump saying, “I want to buy one,” while looking over a display of handguns.

Courts have split on whether the federal ban on receiving new guns—which also prohibits shipping or transporting guns—while under felony indictment is constitutional under the Bruen test, as Jake Charles described in this prior post.  Most courts have upheld the law, including a recent decision out of the Western District of Oklahoma on January 2 that relied on “a historical understanding that Congress remained empowered to disarm persons deemed dangerous because they committed crimes and that [] surety laws reflect that this power extended to disarming persons accused, in some reliable way, of violating the law or presenting a danger to the public.”  Baker (the Oklahoma decision) cited a number of other district courts that have also recently relied on surety laws to uphold 922(n).  There is not yet a federal appellate decision on 922(n) post-Bruen; the Fifth Circuit (which has invalidated multiple other subsections of 922) held oral argument in United States v. Quiroz back in February 2023, but it’s possible that the panel is currently holding the case pending a decision in Rahimi.  For more detail on the Quiroz case, see this prior post by Brandon Beck.

Current President Joe Biden has said he owns at least one shotgun.  He also advocated for the first major piece of federal gun legislation in nearly 30 years (the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed in June 2023) and has recently called for a federal assault weapons ban. 

While Trump’s personal brush with federal firearms law may be a presidential first, Trump also has a self-reported history of carrying guns for self-defense.  In a 2012 interview with the Washington Times, Trump volunteered that he had a New York concealed carry permit—a permit which would have been issued under the state’s now-invalidated permitting law that required an applicant to show “proper cause.”  Trump declined to get specific about the firearms he owned or carried at the time, saying simply: “I own a couple of different guns, but I don’t talk about it.”  Trump separately identified some of the firearms he owned—a .45 caliber Heckler & Koch sidearm and a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver—and referenced frequently carrying guns for self-protection prior to being elected president.  On the policy front, it appears that Trump's views on guns have evolved.  Trump wrote in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, that he opposed most gun control but supported an assault weapons ban and longer gun purchase waiting periods.  More recently, however, Trump has taken an aggressive anti-regulation stance and vowed to roll back certain executive actions by President Biden (some of which are the subject of ongoing litigation). 

To find another president who may have carried guns for self-defense, at least around the time he was in office, one probably has to go all the way back to Ronald Reagan.  Barack Obama has stated publicly that he’s never owned a gun.  There’s not much information on personal gun ownership or carrying by former presidents George W. and H.W. Bush—both Republicans with a relatively moderate political stance on guns.  George H.W. Bush notably resigned his NRA membership in 1995 following then NRA president Wayne LaPierre’s comments about the Oklahoma City bombing; and George W. Bush expressed support for renewing the federal assault weapons ban and extending background checks in 2004.  Bill Clinton, who signed the federal AWB into law in 1993, grew up hunting in Arkansas and was once an NRA member—but there’s no indication that he carried guns for self-defense before, during, or after his presidency. 

Ronald Reagan is renowned as one of the staunchest presidential supporters of individual Second Amendment rights and appointed two justices who were in the majority in Heller.  Reagan, who survived an assassination attempt in 1981 where the would-be assassin used a revolver, told the NRA Annual Members Banquet in 1983 that “[w]e will never disarm any American who seeks to protect his or her family from fear and harm.”  Reagan also signed a ban on open carry when he was California governor and supported the Brady Act, named for Reagan’s press secretary James Brady who was seriously wounded during the 1981 attack.  Some (namely a longtime personal aide to Reagan) have claimed that Reagan frequently carried a pistol for self-protection in his briefcase while he was president—although the issue is a matter of substantial debate and others close to the former president disagree.  Ronald Kessler’s book In the President’s Secret Service details occasions on which Reagan purportedly carried a gun on his person or in his briefcase, including during a 1988 state visit to the Soviet Union and during his unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign.

Reagan would presumably have been subject to Washington D.C.’s de facto hand gun ban—the law struck down in Heller—during his presidency while in and around the White House (that law was enacted in 1976 and remained in effect until 2008).  The D.C. law required generally that all firearms be registered and kept “unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device unless such firearm is kept at his place of business, or while being used for lawful recreational purposes within the District of Columbia.”  The law appears to have contained only limited exceptions for active-duty law enforcement and military personnel and did not explicitly exempt government officials.  Therefore, it seems more probable that Reagan carried a handgun while on presidential trips outside of D.C. than while actually in the White House.

Going further back than the Reagan presidency, one is immediately struck by how little the political debate over guns at the time resembled today’s intensely partisan discourse.  Most presidents—including Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon Johnson—owned guns for hunting (and perhaps also self-defense) while also supporting the types of gun regulation that today are the province of only the most liberal wing of the Democratic party.  LBJ, for example, signed the Gun Control Act of 1968 into law, and Nixon mused in a taped 1972 conversation that “I don’t know why any individual should have a right to have a revolver in his house.”  John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, and Harry Truman all served in the military, and Eisenhower and Truman were purportedly avid hunters in their private lives.  Even before becoming president, Truman owned and was photographed with two handguns that had belonged to Jesse James. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, referred to by some as the “father of gun control” for his efforts to pass the National Firearms Act of 1934 and restrict civilian access to machine guns, has an interesting family history related to firearms.  First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt owned and carried handguns, including purportedly while she was First Lady—although at that time she may have carried a pistol for protection only while on solo car trips.  Long after leaving D.C., in 1957, Mrs. Roosevelt applied for and received a pistol carry permit from Dutchess County, New York, which is displayed at the Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

Part II, which will run on the blog in the coming weeks, will delve further back into American history and examine what we know about the personal gun preferences and carrying habits of pre-New Deal presidents.