In February 1983, about two years after he was shot by John Hinckley, Ronald Reagan was asked the following question by a reporter:
"Don't you think that things might have been different if Hinckley hadn't had more difficulty in being able to get a gun?"
To which Reagan replied:
"Sure would have been more comfortable, except that at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, thereabouts, out there surrounded by many of you, he did what he did in an area that has about the tTC strictest gun control laws that there are in the U.S."
The answer was pure Reagan: amusing, easygoing and somewhat confused.
What Reagan did not point out is that John Hinckley did not buy his gun in Washington, D.C. He bought his gun at Rocky's Pawn Shop in Dallas, where, as one publication put it, "all you have to do to get a gun is pay for it."
A few months later, in May 1983, Ronald Reagan spoke to the annual convention of the National Rifle Association in Phoenix. And Reagan swore to the NRA members that he would never "disarm" American citizens simply because he had been shot by one.
"It's a nasty truth," he said, "but those who seek to inflict harm are not fazed by gun control laws. I happen to know this from personal experience."
Yet, as I noted at the time, Reagan did believe in gun control and he did believe in disarming citizens. Because before Ronald Reagan would speak to the NRA members, he made sure all of them turned in their guns.
Though he promised never to disarm the American people, he made darn sure the NRA members were disarmed before they could get into the auditorium to hear him.
They waited in lines for hours and hours in order to pass through metal detectors. All cameras and tape recorders were checked. Hand wands were passed over their bodies. And the Secret Service looked into every purse, satchel and briefcase.
In other words, Ronald Reagan might say he was against gun control, but he was very much for controlling who had guns when they were around him.
Five years passed and in July 1988, his last year in office, when he was no longer looking for votes, Reagan made a surprising statement at an economic summit meeting in Toronto.
He said he supported a mandatory waiting period before a person could buy a handgun. This waiting period could be used by the police to do a background check, Reagan said, to see if the potential gun-buyer had "a record of any crimes or mental problems, or anything of that kind."
The NRA swiftly condemned Reagan's statement, and Marlin Fitzwater, Reagan's spokesman, was dispatched to explain that Reagan really meant he favored state and not federal laws on a waiting period.
Last week, however, Ronald Reagan spoke out again. And he spoke out in terms that did not need explanation or interpretation.
At a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the attack on his life, Reagan spoke out in support of the Brady bill, named after his press secretary, James Brady, who was shot and permanently disabled by John Hinckley. This bill would establish a seven-day waiting period nationwide before a person could buy a handgun.
Maryland already has a seven-day waiting period, and because of it the state police stop hundreds of people each year from purchasing handguns illegally.
The gun lobby claims the Brady bill would not have stopped Hinckley. But Handgun Control Inc. disputes this by saying that a waiting period and check would have found that Hinckley had given a false address when buying that gun in Texas, thereby committing a felony. And he could have been denied the gun and arrested before shooting anybody.
"I am going to say it in clear, unmistakable language," Ronald Reagan said at the ceremony. "I support the Brady bill, and I urge Congress to enact it without further delay."
George Bush, who has always opposed the Brady bill, has indicated he may now horse-trade with Congress on the matter. Ronald Reagan is still a very popular man, and Reagan's support for the Brady bill gives it a better chance of passage.
But why the magical turnaround by Reagan? Well, it isn't magic. Ronald Reagan is now a free man. He doesn't need the gun lobby anymore. He doesn't need their votes or their dollars.
Now, in the twilight of his life, he no longer has to listen to his political consultants.
He can listen to his conscience instead.