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By Janel Davis February 5, 2013

Did Reagan support an assault-weapons ban?

About a month after a mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., left 20 schoolchildren and six adults dead, President Barack Obama rolled out a package of gun-control proposals during a speech with Vice President Joe Biden. The package included initiatives such as an assault-weapons ban that requires congressional approval, along with 23 executive actions that the president can implement on his own. The price tag for the package is estimated at $500 million.

In presenting the package, specifically the portion dealing with the assault-weapons ban, Obama made a point of conjuring past President Ronald Reagan’s stance on the same issue.

"Weapons designed for the theater of war have no place in a movie theater," Obama said during the speech. "A majority of Americans agree with us on this. And, by the way, so did Ronald Reagan, one of the staunchest defenders of the Second Amendment, who wrote to Congress in 1994, urging them -- this is Ronald Reagan speaking -- urging them to listen to the American public and to the law-enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of military-style assault weapons."

Evoking past presidents is a frequent practice by politicians. Unfortunately, sometimes the context and the content of the recollections are incorrect. PolitiFact Georgia decided to check the accuracy of Obama’s statement, as well as whether most Americans support a ban on military-style assault weapons.

Obama pitched his gun plan at the White House surrounded by school-age children who had written letters to the president about the Newtown school shooting. In the audience were the parents of one of the students killed at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, along with a survivor of the 2007 shooting massacre at Virginia Tech that left more than 30 people dead and an additional 15 wounded.

Against this emotional backdrop Obama’s plans drew immediate and intense reaction from supporting groups such as the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, as well as opponents such as the National Rifle Association.

Obama’s push for an assault-weapon’s ban hearkens to the original ban passed in 1994 that expired in 2004. At the time of that ban’s passage, Reagan -- who took office in 1981-- supported it. In a joint letter to The Boston Globe with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, the former presidents wrote, "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."

Eight years before this letter in the newspaper supporting the assault-weapons ban, Reagan, who was then president, signed into law the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which was supported by gun rights advocates. In addition to providing protections for gun owners, the act also banned ownership of any fully automatic rifles that were not already registered on the day the law was signed.

These items provide a framework for Reagan’s actions around an assassination attempt on his life months after taking office in 1981. The shooting left Reagan wounded and presidential press secretary James Brady paralyzed. The shooting provided the impetus for the Brady Bill, introduced in 1987, that required background checks for gun purchasers and a waiting period before a buyer could take possession of a gun.

In a 1991 New York Times op-ed titled "Why I’m For the Brady Bill," Reagan detailed his support of a seven-day waiting period for gun buyers. "Every year, an average of 9,200 Americans are murdered by handguns, according to Department of Justice statistics," Reagan said in the op-ed. "… If the passage of the Brady bill were to result in a reduction of only 10 or 15 percent of those numbers (and it could be a good deal greater), it would be well worth making it the law of the land."

"Reagan supported the Brady Bill. That was after he had left office, but he did support it," said Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University. "His views are a little complicated because he also signed legislation easing the (1968) Gun Control Act, so you can take Reagan either way."

As for the president’s assessment that "a majority of Americans agree" with the assault-weapons ban, we went to the polls for answers.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll involving guns, politics and governing priorities was conducted by telephone Jan. 10-13. The poll included a random national sample of 1,001 adults, including land-line and cellphone-only respondents. The poll’s results have a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

The poll includes three pertinent questions about weapons bans:

-- Would you support or oppose a law requiring a nationwide ban on semi-automatic handguns, which automatically reload every time the trigger is pulled?
Fifty-one percent of all adults said yes; 46 percent said no. Fifty percent of registered voters said yes; 47 percent said no.

-- Would you support or oppose a law requiring a nationwide ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, meaning those containing more than 10 bullets?
Sixty-five percent of all adults said they supported a ban; 32 percent opposed. Those same numbers applied to registered voters.

-- Would you support or oppose a law requiring a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons?
Fifty-eight percent of all adults supported a ban; 39 percent opposed. Fifty-nine percent of registered voters supported a ban; 38 percent opposed.

So how does Obama’s statement rate?

During his speech laying out a package of gun-control proposals, the president evoked Reagan’s support of an assault-weapons ban. History shows that Reagan’s track record on guns is a winding road. He was a strong gun rights supporter who signed legislation easing an earlier gun law. But he also supported legislation for background checks and a waiting period for potential gun owners. He did support an assault-weapons ban and even joined two other former presidents in a letter to a major newspaper urging congressional approval of a ban.

Not only did Reagan support the ban, but so do most Americans, Obama said. Information from a Washington Post/ABC News poll supports the president’s statement.

On these two issues, we gave Obama a True rating.

Staff writer Karishma Mehrotra contributed to this article.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Remarks by the President and Vice President on gun violence, White House Office of the Press Secretary, Jan. 16, 2013

The New York Times, "What’s in Obama’s gun control proposal?" Jan. 16, 2013

Washington Post-ABC News poll, "Guns, politics and governing priorities," conducted Jan. 10-13, 2013; published Jan. 16, 2013

The Washington Post, "The long (and sometimes turbulent) history of the NRA and the GOP," Sean Sullivan, Jan. 17, 2013

Daily Kos, "Reagan: Assault weapons ban must be passed," Dec. 20, 2012

Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence website, accessed, Jan. 29, 2013

Phone interview, Allan Lichtman, professor, American University, Jan. 31, 2013

MSNBC, "A look back at gun control history," Jan. 23, 2013

New York Times, "Why I’m for the Brady Bill," Ronald Reagan, March 29, 1991

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