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Reagan’s Pistol and the Myth of a Good Guy with a Gun

The modern-day “tactical” movement is out of its mind
by Rick Perlstein

Feb 1, 2016 | Politics


This past June, pulp novelist Brad Meltzer revealed that, while he was touring Secret Service headquarters for research on a White House thriller, agents shared with him what Meltzer called a “secret.” President Ronald Reagan packed heat. “It’s true,” they said. “A .38. Reagan used to hide it in his briefcase and take it on Air Force One.”

Not a secret, actually. Edmund Morris said the same thing in Dutch. And Ronald Kessler’s In the President’s Secret Service reported that “Reagan confided to one agent that on his first presidential trip to the Soviet Union in May 1988, he had carried a gun in his briefcase.” Kessler also wrote that an agent protecting Reagan during his 1976 presidential run asked why he was wearing a pistol. Reagan replied, “Well, just in case you guys can’t do the job, I can help out.”

It wasn’t news then, but Meltzer’s retelling of the story got legs. Reagan loyalists and apologists came out of the woodwork, howling. David C. Fischer, a special assistant during Reagan’s first term, told TIME magazine, “I never saw a gun in his briefcase.” Kenneth Duberstein, Reagan’s last White House chief of staff and a consummate K Street insider, said he had “no reason to believe it’s true.” Lou Cannon, whose Reagan chronicles evolved over 50 years from astringent to sycophantic, averred, “It’s so off the wall that I don’t know what to say. I think it’s fantasy, at best.” Historian H.W. Brands, whose recent biography was distinguished by the curious methodological decision of taking Reagan’s own accounts of his past at face value, offered, “I’ll believe the evidence when I see it.”

Then, we saw that evidence. Reagan’s longtime body man Jim Kuhn reported seeing the gun in Reagan’s briefcase (but only once). Biographer Craig Shirley, on the other hand—a conservative movement activist who has established an identity defying Washington insiders who’d seek to clean up what history might judge as Reagan’s extremism—said he’d already confirmed it with the head of Reagan’s post-presidential Secret Service detail. Shirley also reports that Reagan had begun the practice after John Hinckley’s 1981 assassination attempt, that he “routinely” brought the gun aboard flights on Air Force One and Marine One, that he’d defied both Nancy and the Secret Service to do so (“Who’s going to say no to the President?”), and that, though Alzheimer’s-ridden, he continued the practice until the Secret Service finally took the gun from him in 1994.

The United States Secret Service is among the most highly trained and tactically sophisticated police agencies on the planet. Just to qualify for the job requires hitting a 10-inch target with a handgun four of five times in 10 seconds. A memoir by Dan Emmett, veteran of three “presidential protection details,” describes other aspects of the two-month initial training: a surprise simulation of a full-scale motorcade ambush, 20 seconds of chaos in which distinguishing civilians from attackers was rendered nearly impossible; firing so many practice rounds he could barely hold a rifle on his swollen shoulder; fighting lessons from an instructor who had so many broken bones “three digits still pointed at odd angles”; and “one hundred hours of control tactics, raid training, hand-to-hand combat, and reacting to attacks on protectees.” All this, incidentally, was just to qualify for a desk job.

It takes many more years of dues-paying to get on a protective detail, let alone a presidential protective detail, where the intricacies of tactical choreography are timed to the split second.

Assignment to a protective detail can lead to situations like Emmett encountered when President Clinton and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad met privately in a room and Emmett was instructed that if for any reason the Syrian bodyguards drew their Skorpion fully-automatic pistols with magazines holding between 10 and 20 rounds, “I would per my training shoot each of them twice with my Sig Sauer pistol until the threat was neutralized, I had expended all ammunition, or I was out of the game. I repositioned myself a bit in order to ensure that President Clinton and Assad would not be in my line of fire. . . . It would be catastrophic beyond imagination if a Secret Service bullet from my pistol struck either POTUS or Assad.”

Think about it. It was in a situation like this that a 78-year-old president thought he just might click open his briefcase, in order to “help out.”

Reality has never had much to do with the conservative cult that extols superior firepower as the answer to all of life’s little problems. For your conservative camouflage-wearing neighbor next door, the fantasy of bursting through a door, guns blazing, mowing down bad guys and saving the day is considered more realistic than the prospect of receiving a Social Security check 20 years from now.

Crime went down; fear went up. What else happened? Ronald Reagan was elected, for one thing, and taught everyone to be more afraid.

Consider the word “tactical,” which is everywhere now on the Internet and means, in this context, “military-style.” I recently plugged in the phrase “tactical training” into Google Maps. I discovered that there were no less than seven places I could do it within 40 miles of my yuppie Chicago neighborhood. Think camouflage gear, an AR-15 with a sniper sight, and fat middle-aged men in a martial crouch.

Did I mention bursting through a door, guns blazing? At the Spartan Tactical Training Group, in the suburb of Lisle, you can take a “Two-Day Dynamic Room Entry Course.” The course will cover “strategies on how to deal with closed and opened doorways, moving through doorway openings, controlled room entry and room domination.”

Also “two person team room entry techniques while engaging single threats and multiple threats during shoot/no-shoot decision making drills. Students will also learn Close Quarter Battle (CQB) techniques and advanced combat gun-handling skills that are necessary to engage threats from contact distance out to 10 yards.”

The company promises: “Dominate your domicile—bring a rifle to a handgun fight.” In 2009, Lisle ranked 17th on Money magazine’s “Best Places for the Rich and Single” list, so that training must come in awful handy.

Northwest Suburban Tactical Training Center’s marketing slogans are “Risk Management Through Stressed Tactical Training” and (a nod to Dick Cheney’s “One Percent Doctrine?”) “Be Prepared for the 1% Day.” A “1% Day” is “when serious and random events may put us and/or our loved one’s [sic] in harms [sic] way . . . Our sole purpose is training for survival . . . the skills and knowledge our dedicated and well-versed instructors impart to our customers are designed to make sure they effectively and successfully survive a 1% day.” They advise, “When it comes to survival, winning is the only option. . . . After all, your life is in the balance.”

I’m not good at math, but are they really implying that situations in which one’s life hangs in the balance transpire approximately 3.65 days of every year? Yes, it seems they are.

Fear—constant, enveloping dread—is what the tactical training industry is selling. Northwest’s chief instructor, a Marine veteran and former operative in the military’s Joint Task Force Six, which supports law enforcement agencies in operations against terrorism, narco-trafficking, alien smuggling, and weapons of mass destruction in the continental United States, is certified in disciplines including “Sudden Assault Response Systems,” “Tactical Response to Lethal Threats,” and “Combat Physio-Kinetics.” He is also certified in something called the “Refuse to Be a Victim” program. A registered trademark of the National Rifle Association, RTBAV, a promotional video informs us, is “not a firearm or self-defense course.” No, it is a paranoia course. Aimed at everyday women, it began in 1993 at the behest of “NRA members, NRA board members, and even NRA staffers who became more concerned with the increase in violent attacks, especially on women, in America.” Although actually, there has not been an increase in violent attacks: according to FBI statistics, there were about six violent crimes per 1,000 Americans in 1981, five in 1993 when the program began, and about 3.8 in 2013, when the video was made.

Tactical fun! Photo Credit: Reagan Library

Tactical fun! Photo Credit: Reagan Library

Crime went down; fear went up. What else happened? Ronald Reagan was elected, for one thing, and taught everyone to be more afraid.

In the tactical mindset there are good guys and there are bad guys, and they are always perfectly easy to tell apart. Who are the good guys? The semiotics of tactical websites make it pretty plain. Eagles and American flags. Invocations of 9/11. The pictures featured on the Northwest Suburban Tactical Training Center website include a self-assured business- man. And women: a teacher, a mom, and an apparent college student. All the females are blond. The proverbial good guys with guns, said to be the only thing that can defeat a bad guy with a gun. The bad guy is represented on the NRA’s “Don’t Be a Victim” site as a black silhouette looming at the corner of the screen. I always want to ask these tactical instructors: how do you know you’re not training him?

I would have liked to ask Ronald Reagan, too—practically the author of the “good guy with a gun” doctrine. Shortly after World War II, he became convinced that a complex jurisdictional strike pitting a democratic and left-wing union against a mobbed-up company union was really a Communist conspiracy to take over Hollywood. Things got rough at the studio: “I was fitted with a shoulder holster and a loaded .32 Smith & Wesson,” ready to ward off the Commies if they came at him. (I wonder if that’s what he was thinking of when he took his .38 with him to Russia in 1988.)

Nor was this his first gun. As he told the editors of Sports Afield in 1984, years earlier when he was a radio announcer in Iowa he had used a .45 automatic he kept on his mantel to rescue a damsel in distress outside his apartment. Back then, he was a Roosevelt-loving liberal; but the wingnut butterfly was making ready to burst forth from the chrysalis, fully formed.

I’ve written about how Reagan was instrumental, in the 1970s, in promoting the ideology of the newly emergent hard-right faction in the NRA. “Guns don’t make criminals,” he said on his radio show in 1975. “It’s criminals who make use of guns. They’re the ones who should be punished––not the law-abiding citizen who seeks to defend himself.” (In 1980, the hard-right faction having taken over, the NRA endorsed Reagan for president, the first time it had endorsed a candidate for the presidency.)

The fact that everyone’s a law-abiding citizen until they break a law, that good guys become bad guys and vice-versa with regularity, or that one person’s good guy might be somebody else’s bad guy (say, the abusive husband of one of those blond women featured on that Tactical Training Center website) seems never to occur to any of them. It’s as if they’ve only seen the species homo sapiens at the zoo, and are not quite sure how the beast actually behaves.

Wingnuts, naturally, ate up Meltzer’s revelation with a spoon. Because this is their fantasy, too. One tweeter: “Reagan carried a gun in his briefcase? Awesome. #GangstaGipper.” Spencer Irvine of Accuracy in Media pined, “We miss you, Ronnie.” The Washington Free Beacon ran: “Reagan Bigger Badass than Previously Known.” Conservatives had to believe this story: it said that Reagan was just like them––completely out of their minds on the subject.

And it’s not just the Reaganites and militia types who celebrate the gun craze.

An equity research report from BB&T Capital Markets investment bank recently opined: “We believe trends are improving for the Firearms and Ammunition Industry following the drop in demand in 2014. We are initiating coverage on the following companies with a buy rating: Sturm, Ruger (RGR) and Vista Outdoor (VSTO).”

“The surge in demand was the largest in military style rifles (MSRs), sometimes referred to as black rifles. . . . It is our opinion that a major driver of commercial gun and ammunition sales is fear of regulations or the banning/restricting/registering of firearms. . . . before and following the 2012 presidential election, gun sales spoke [sic] nearly 40%. These recent spikes have been called ‘panic buying’ by the trade and by consumers. . . . We expect more debates on gun ownership restrictions during the presidential election cycle. Any proposals for bans or talks of changes to the regulatory environment can be expected to lead to market growth as consumers react through purchasing more firearms and ammunition.”

It’s quite something to see the rhetoric of paranoid websites translated into the cold jargon of the securities analyst. There are no serious “proposals for bans” in any legislature. And as for “changes to the regulatory environment,” President Obama’s a new executive order merely enhances the ability to make sure, a well, bad guys don’t get guns: that the same background checks required of buyers in gun stores extend to gun shows, too. (When NRA types say we don’t need new gun laws, we just have to enforce the ones already on the books, they’re lying.) A vote to extend criminal and mental illness background checks, which includes a specific ban on a national registry, failed for the second time in two years only days after the mass shootings in San Bernardino, with no prospects of passing any time soon. Indeed, as the sober-sided bankers at BB&T elsewhere explain, one actual recent change in the regulatory environment has been “the liberalization of laws governing the carrying of loaded handguns on one’s person for personal protection.”

It’s all a fantasy. GangstaGipper’s fantasy. That’s what is driving our gun policies now. You don’t have to pine for the departed Ronnie, Spencer Irvine. His absurdities are all around.

Sidebar: Palookas With Bazookas

The lunacy of our modern-day “tactical” movement is not just the proliferation of guns. It’s the refusal to draw distinctions between the people who use them, be they trained professionals or oafish amateurs. Note two examples that arrived close on each other’s heels this winter.

In November, after the mass shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic, Maricopa County’s Joe Arpaio inducted all 250,000 Arizonans with concealed carry permits into his already-existing volunteer “armed posse” to fight terrorist attacks: “I expect armed citizens to take action in the event a terror attack or other violence occurs until law enforcement arrives.”

Then, in December, after Mark Herring, Virginia’s Democratic Attorney General, announced the state would no longer recognize out-of-state concealed-carry permits, a Republican state senator moved to punish Herring’s boss, Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe: “I have a budget amendment that I’m looking at to take away his executive protection unit. If he’s so afraid of guns, then I’m not going to surround him with armed policemen.”

So there it was: the absolute disintegration of any distinction between trained state police and every last palooka with a bazooka. But remember: Ronald Reagan got there first. – R.P.

Rick Perlstein is the Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.

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  1. Per James Webb’s intended encomium to his heritage, which reads more like an hatchet-job, I’d say this were what South Africans dealing with Zulus and Brits dealing with Sikhs call a ‘cultural weapon’. Its meaning dwarfs its utility.

  2. “The United States Secret Service is among the most highly trained … police agencies on the planet. Just to qualify for the job requires hitting a 10-inch target with a handgun four of five times in 10 seconds.”

    That doesn’t really tell me anything without knowing AT WHAT DISTANCE? At the distance, of, say, one car-length I could easily do it, and so could many other people. At twenty-five yards I could easily fail that test — though I know others who would pass.

    “The fact that everyone’s a law-abiding citizen until they break a law, that good guys become bad guys and vice-versa with regularity, or that one person’s good guy might be somebody else’s bad guy (say, the abusive husband of one of those blond women featured on that Tactical Training Center website) seems never to occur to any of them.”

    With regularity? Most people who might mug or burgle you have arrest records going back to their juvenile years.

    Most husbands with clean records are not abusive. And even in that case, it’s a lot easier for an abusive man without a gun to murder his spouse than it is for an abused woman _without_ a gun to kill her spouse in legal self-defense. So even in that bad situation, the availability of guns may not make a bad situation good, but it has more potential to make it less bad than it has to make it worse.

    “So there it was: the absolute disintegration of any distinction between trained state police and every last palooka with a bazooka.”

    This is what is known as political equality and equal rights. Protection for anyone who wants it, and not just for the elite. This was the spirit in which the first modern police force, London’s Bobbies were created. (At the time, the London Metropolitan police while on duty were among the very few adults forbidden to carry firearms.) Robert Peel, the creator of this police force and for whom they were nicknamed, said it best:

    “The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

    But what is this “palooka with a bazooka”? Because they’re not necessarily as highly trained as the President’s Secret Service detail? (Hint: Neither are most cops. Armed private security guards, even less so.) But then why is he questioning the need for all these “tactical training” facilities for private citizens? Does he want us armed private citizens to be well-trained, or not?

    Look, until the mid-1960s most of us assumed the police could protect us from muggers, purse snatchers, burglars and rapist abductors of women. And then they suddenly they stopped protecting us. And we were told the police _couldn’t_ protect us until society eliminated the root causes of crime — racism, poverty and economic inequality. So, at least until there’s a general agreement that enough has been done to eliminate racism, poverty and economic inequality — we’re going to have to be prepared to shoot robbers and rapists ourselves.

  3. Of course most of almost any particular group will not be bad guys. We’re not talking about majorities here. Your statements make no sense. The point is that there is no way to know who is going to commit a crime with the gun s/he buys. So the principle of allowing “law abiding” folks to buy guns because they don’t commit crimes is also nonsense. Law abiding folks commit crimes every day. It is AFTER they commit the crime today with the gun they bought yesterday that they become criminals, not before.

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