Presidential Firearms: Part II

  • Date:
  • February 28, 2024

This post is Part II in a three-part series exploring how U.S. presidents carried, interacted with, and viewed firearms before, during, and after the presidency.  While many presidents have served in the military, these posts will focus instead on personal firearm ownership, political actions taken before becoming president, and other anecdotes that might shed light on a certain president’s personal views toward gun rights and regulation.[1]  I generally won’t cover the long and fascinating history of U.S. presidents being presented with firearms as gifts from organizations or individuals; although that topic may the subject of an additional follow-on article.  You can read Part I here.  This post will cover the period from 1932 back through the Civil War, and a subsequent post will examine pre-1860 presidents.

My prior post went back to the New Deal era and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose wife and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was known to carry a handgun with her on solo automobile trips and later applied for and received a pistol permit while living in upstate New York in the 1950s.  Herbert Hoover was president during the initial wave of public concern about the use of early machine guns—namely the Thompson submachine gun, or “Tommy gun.”  The St. Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago on February 14, 1929, in which seven gang members and associates were murdered with Tommy guns, was one of the most notorious gangland killings in American history and offered an opportunity for Hoover to live up to his “tough on crime” campaign promise.  Hoover did this primarily by pursuing and prosecuting Al Capone for tax offenses, but public outcry over the massacre and other episodes of gang violence would eventually coalesce into a concerted push for action on firearms and the 1934 National Firearms Act.  Hoover’s wife, First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, set a model subsequently followed by Eleanor Roosevelt.  Lou Hoover purportedly “learned to use a pistol as a means of self-protection” while living in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, when Herbert Hoover was opening and managing mines in China.

Calvin Coolidge was an avid fisher and hunter, and he was also the governor of Massachusetts from 1919 to 1921.  While governor, Coolidge signed into a law a Massachusetts statute that authorized warrants to issue if a “complainant believe[d] that an unreasonable number of rifles, shot guns, pistols, revolvers or other dangerous weapons, or that an unnecessary quantity of ammunition, is kept or concealed for any unlawful purpose in a particular house or place.”  Warren Harding, also a Republican and a hunter, was plagued by scandal both during and after his presidency.  Harding was also known for his conservation policies and attempting to safeguard the legacy of national parks free from “commercialism” that dates back to Theodore Roosevelt.  Earlier, as an Ohio state senator in 1900, Harding voted in favor of a law imposing a $100 license fee for owning gunpowder magazines and a $50 annual license fee for owning and operating a shooting gallery.  The law passed the state legislature unanimously.

There is little available information about Woodrow Wilson’s personal views on firearms and whether he owned or carried guns.  As New Jersey governor in 1912, Wilson signed into law a statute banning the concealed carry of certain weapons and the manufacture and sale of “of any instrument or weapon of the kind usually known as a blackjack, slung-shot, billy, sandclub, sand-bag, bludgeon, or metal knuckles.”  The law also required all dealers selling handguns to keep a register recording information regarding each sale.

Unlike Wilson, it is widely known that Theodore Roosevelt was an avid big-game hunter with a large personal firearms collection (including handguns).  By at least one account, Roosevelt “often” went armed with a revolver while president and slept with a handgun on his bedside table.  A 1890s Smith & Wesson revolver belonging to Roosevelt fetched nearly $1 million at auction in 2023.  Roosevelt, who traveled to the Badlands of North Dakota for the first time in 1883, invested in a cattle ranch, and returned periodically in subsequent years, purportedly recalled approvingly in an interview later in life that the Dakota Territory at the time prohibited “shooting in the streets.”  In fact, the Dakota Territory went farther than that.  The territory prohibited concealed carry outright from its establishment in 1865, a policy that lasted until the beginning of a permit system in the Dakotas in the 1930s.  During his brief stint as New York governor from 1899-1900, Roosevelt signed into law a criminal prohibition on selling or transferring “pistols or other firearm[s]” to those under the age of 18 (along with other non-firearm weapons restrictions).  Roosevelt also voted in favor of an 1884 state prohibition on the concealed carry of certain non-firearm weapons (including any “dangerous knife") that also banned individuals under the age of 18 from carrying pistols without a written license.  Roosevelt was a member of the New York state assembly at the time.

After leaving the presidency in 1913, William Howard Taft assumed a professorship at Yale Law School until 1921, when he was nominated and confirmed to serve as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (he is the only president to also serve on the high court).  In 1920, a career criminal named Carl Panzram broke into Taft’s New Haven, Connecticut mansion and stole jewels, bonds, cash, and a Colt M1911 .45 caliber handgun belonging to the former president.  Taft, as Secretary of War, had earlier sentenced Panzram to a term in federal prison for an offense committed while Panzram was serving in the army.  Panzram purchased a boat with the proceeds of the burglary and later claimed to have murdered 10 sailors with Taft’s gun in the vicinity of New York City in 1920-1921.  He remained at large until 1928 and was hanged in 1930.

William McKinley served as governor of Ohio from 1892-1896 and signed into law an 1894 state ban on discharging air guns or other firearms “upon any [] streets, alleys, lanes or public places.”  A brief report from a Dayton newspaper explained that “[t]he frequency of accidents from these deadly weapons impelled the [the Ohio house of representatives] to take this action.”  McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in 1901 while greeting the public at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.  The gun used to kill the president was a .32 caliber Iver Johnson automatic revolver purchased the day before the assassination for $4.50 (approximately $160 today).

Grover Cleveland’s unique Model 1883 Colt 8-Gauge Double Barrel shotgun is on display at the NRA Museum in Fairfax, Virginia.  A post on the NRA’s blog suggests the gun was specially made for and presented to Cleveland, who enjoyed hunting.  As New York governor in the 1880s, Cleveland signed a number of state-level firearm restrictions into law—including the same 1884 concealed carry and under-18 public carry restriction Theodore Roosevelt supported as an assembly member.  Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms (the only president ever to do so), with Benjamin Harrison’s administration in between.  Harrison was seemingly an avid bird hunter; fellow Republican Chester A. Arthur, on the other hand, preferred fishing—including during his famous 1883 expedition to Yellowstone.

James Garfield was president for only about 6 months before being shot to death by a disgruntled office-seeker.  The assassin purchased the gun, a .442 “British Bull Dog” Wembley revolver, at a D.C. gun store for $10 (about $300 today) after asking for an especially powerful handgun.  According to a subsequent confession, he asked the gun store owner whether there was any law against carrying a handgun and was told, “Yes, there is, but they don’t enforce it except against drunken people.”  D.C. had passed a concealed carry ban covering “deadly or dangerous weapons,” including pistols, in 1858.

Before becoming president, Rutherford B. Hayes was governor of Ohio on two separate occasions.  He was governor in 1877, when the state passed a ban on firing cannons or exploding more than four ounces of gunpowder “except in case of invasion by a foreign enemy, or to suppress insurrection or a mob, or for the purpose of raising the body of a person drowned, or for the purpose of blasting or removing rock.”  Hayes served under Ulysses S. Grant in the Eastern theater of the Civil War and was wounded in combat (he would later succeed Grant as president).  The Hayes Presidential Library houses a collection of his personal firearms, including many with Civil War connections.  As a military man, Ulysses Grant also owned many firearms.  A pair of Grant’s Remington revolvers sold at auction for $5.17 million in 2022 (the guns may have been presented to Grant after his 1863 victory at Vicksburg).

Andrew Johnson served as Tennessee governor in the 1850s, and he was also installed as the state’s military governor by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 when the state was split between Union- and Confederate-controlled regions.  During his time as governor, the state enacted at least two major gun-related restrictions.  In 1856, Tennessee made it a crime to give any minor a “pistol, bowie-knife, dirk, or Arkansas tooth-pick, or hunter's knife,” except for hunting.[2]  The state also passed a general concealed carry ban in 1863. 

Abraham Lincoln briefly served in the Illinois militia in the 1830s and purportedly kept a close eye on developments in firearm technology during the Civil War.  One account claims that, during the war, “Lincoln effectively became a one-man weapons research and development agency [who] reviewed new armament proposals, gave audiences to would-be inventors, . . . placed orders for new weapons, and tested many gadgets himself.”  Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 with a .44 caliber, single-shot Derringer pistol—John Wilkes Booth concealed the weapon when he entered Lincoln’s box, likely in violation of D.C.’s 1858 concealed carry ban.  The gun itself is displayed at Ford’s Theatre as part of a memorial to Lincoln.  In the 1990s, some began to suspect that the original gun had been stolen and replaced with a replica.  An FBI investigation subsequently concluded that the pistol was authentic. 


[1] For example, as a representative from Texas in 1968, George H.W. Bush voted in favor of passing the Gun Control Act of 1968 (out of the Texas delegation of 22 representatives, the margin was 15-7 against the bill).  Lyndon Johnson was similarly a member of the House of Representatives from Texas in 1938, when the Federal Firearms Act passed that chamber with unanimous consent.

[2] According to legislative history materials, the amendment to add the minor-sale restriction to a larger criminal reform bill passed by a margin of 40-11 in the Tennessee state house of representatives.  Similar laws were passed in many states from about 1850-1870, and these restrictions have frequently appeared in post-Bruen litigation regarding modern under-21 firearm restrictions.