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A Look Back: Presidents and Guns

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We’ve all heard various interpretations of the Founding Fathers’ views on the Second Amendment. But what about succeeding presidents’ thoughts on gun ownership? Better yet, did any presidents own or carry guns? Below we have listed some fascinating tidbits about presidents and guns in honor of Presidents’ Day.

The Rough Rider

Of all the U.S. presidents, Theodore Roosevelt (26th president) probably had the greatest love for and largest collection of firearms. He routinely went on hunting expeditions to Africa, South America and the American West and was regularly photographed toting a weapon. A war veteran and advocate for gun ownership, Roosevelt stressed to Congress in 1906 the importance of shooting to the defense of America: “The first step — in the direction of preparation to avert war if possible, and to be fit for war if it should come,” Roosevelt urged, “is to teach men to shoot.”

Vice President Roosevelt ascended to the presidency following the assassination of President William McKinley in September 1901. He reportedly vowed that he would not meet the same fate, so he carried his own concealed weapon for protection. When Roosevelt visited Harvard University, Dr. Charles W. Eliot, president of the school, observed him placing a pistol on a dresser after removing his coat. When Eliot asked if he usually carried a firearm, Roosevelt replied, “Yes, when I am going into public places.” Others reported seeing Roosevelt printing and were aware he carried a firearm for protection. (He supposedly kept a semi-automatic Browning FN M1900 in his bedside drawer.)

Old Grover

Grover Cleveland’s claim to fame is that he is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms (22nd and 24th president). Few know that one of his favorite pastimes was hunting. Cleveland even published a book in 1906, titled Fishing and Shooting Sketches. To be a good quail shooter, Cleveland wrote, a hunter must follow these rules: Remain cool, trust the carrying qualities of his gun, have confidence in his ability as a hunter and rely on the intelligence of his dog. Experience and practice will take care of the rest. Colt produced its only 8-gauge, hammerless double-barrel shotgun for the 6-foot, 260-pound politician. (The shotgun is on display at the NRA National Firearms Museum.)

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry 

A native of a Missouri farm, Harry S. Truman (33rd president) grew up around guns and collected firearms throughout his life. He was the only president to see action during WWI. Lieutenant Truman was issued a Colt M1911 .45 while in training at Camp Doniphan, Oklahoma, in 1918. Shortly after, he was issued a Colt M1917 revolver when he arrived in France. He retained both firearms until he donated them to the Truman Library in 1959. He turned the .45 in with two full magazines and the revolver in with a full cylinder, indicating that Truman kept them loaded for protection.

A number of fine firearms were given as gifts to President Truman during his presidency. According to Richard J. Keogh in his article “The Truman Colts,” Truman accepted them because he “appreciated fine firearms and considered them appropriate gifts.”

Madam President

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (32nd president) is known for passing the first federal gun-control law, the National Firearms Act of 1934 (also known as the Anti-Machine Gun Bill), to battle the growing problem with machine-gun-wielding gangsters. Like her husband, Eleanor Roosevelt accomplished many firsts as the 32nd first lady: first to open the White House to reporters, drive her own car, travel by plane, make a salary by writing, lecturing and broadcasting, and, most notably, carry a gun for protection.

Mrs. Roosevelt refused to have a Secret Service agent assigned to her, even after her husband evaded an assassin’s bullets in 1933. The Director of Secret Service William H. Moran found a compromise with the First Lady. “[I]f Mrs. Roosevelt is going to drive around the country alone,” he told Louis Howe, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s private secretary, “at least ask her to carry this in the car,” setting a revolver on the table. Eleanor Roosevelt religiously carried it, and one of her husband’s bodyguards trained her on how to use it. “[M]y opportunities for shooting have been few and far between, but if the necessity arose, I do know how to use a pistol,” she told a reporter. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Roosevelt moved to New York and applied for and received a permit to carry a firearm after numerous death threats.


About Frank Jastrzembski

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Frank Jastrzembski is an associate editor with Delta Defense, LLC. He studied history at John Carroll University (B.A.) and Cleveland State University (M.A.). He’s written dozens of history and travel articles and two books on Victorian officers. He’s also a regular contributor to the blog Emerging Civil War. He runs “Shrouded Veterans,” a nonprofit mission to identify or repair the graves of Mexican War and Civil War veterans.

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