Nancy Reagan, who died Sunday at 94, was not a natural fit for gun control advocacy. The former actress and wife of GOP standard-bearer Ronald Reagan sometimes kept a pistol in her nightstand when her husband was out of town. But after a personal brush with gun violence, she began to change her mind.
Minutes after John Hinckley Jr. fired a handgun six times at her husband, a Secret Service agent incorrectly told Mrs. Reagan that all the shots had missed the president. When she found out that her husband was in critical condition — a bullet fragment had entered his left lung, barely missing his heart — she was shocked.
“He was so white. I have never seen anybody so white,” she later recalled. “And he had that thing over his face to help him breathe, and there was blood.”
Mrs. Reagan, who kept the extent of the president’s injuries a secret for years, was by her own account severely traumatized by the experience.
“There is nothing that can describe your husband being shot and the emotions that you go through,” she said in a 1994 interview. “It’s something that never leaves you.”
In the same interview, she described hate mail to her husband written by people vowing to complete what Hinckley attempted. “Every time he would walk out the door to go out and talk to 10,000 people, my heart sank,” she said. Mrs. Reagan even tried — unsuccessfully — to convince her husband not to run for reelection.
As the assassination attempt sank in, Nancy Reagan began to question her own attitude toward guns, according to her 1989 memoir, My Turn. President Reagan maintained his view that access to guns was not “where the problem lies,” but after the shooting, his wife differed. “After what I saw in that hospital, I’m not sure I agree with him,” she wrote.
After the couple left the White House, the former president came around to Mrs. Reagan’s view, joining her in backing gun reform. (Today, Reagan’s record confounds gun-rights advocates, who are unable to claim Reagan as a unqualified proponent of their views.) “With the right to bear arms comes a great responsibility to use caution and common sense on handgun purchases,” he said in a March 1991 speech. With his wife’s encouragement, Reagan supported landmark gun control legislation in the 1990s, including the 1993 Brady Bill, which mandated federal background checks and was named for Reagan’s press secretary Jim Brady, who was shot during Hinckley’s assassination attempt and suffered lifelong debilitating injuries as a result.
She “was not afraid to chart her own course politically. She persuaded her husband to support the Brady law, and their advocacy was instrumental in helping us pass it,” Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, the Brady Bill’s chief sponsor, said in a statement on Sunday. Schumer told The Trace that he believed Mrs. Reagan supported the Brady Bill, which was first introduced in 1987, during the final years of her husband’s presidency, due in part to her close friendship with Jim Brady’s wife, Sarah.
In a New York Times op-ed published in 1991, on the tenth anniversary of the shooting, Ronald Reagan parried opponents of the Brady Bill, including the National Rifle Association, who claimed that background checks were ineffective in states that already had them, because criminals avoided them by buying guns elsewhere. “True enough, and all the more reason to have a federal law that fills the gaps,” Reagan wrote. “This level of violence must be stopped.”
In May 1994, President Reagan also urged Congress to pass a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons. “While we recognize that assault-weapon legislation will not stop all assault-weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals,” Reagan wrote in a letter to the Boston Globe that was co-signed by former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
Support from Reagan, who was immensely popular in 1994, was vital in winning over wavering lawmakers. The assault weapons bill passed the House by just two votes. Dick Swett, a New Hampshire Democrat, and Scott Klug, a Wisconsin Republican, said they voted for the bill as a direct result of Reagan’s lobbying.
That vote also came after Reagan had all but ceased to appear in public, and six months before he announced his Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosis. By then, Mrs. Reagan was managing her husband’s schedule and advising him on most policy issues, according to former aides. Though it is difficult to say exactly how much she encouraged his advocacy for the ban, circumstances — included her previously stated views and influence over her husband — suggest that her support for the law was important.
Schumer, who was also a leading supporter of the ban, said Nancy Reagan was instrumental in convincing her husband to support that measure.
“She was the passion,” he said.
[Photo: AP Photo/Zeboski]