President Reagan, wounded more than two years ago by a bullet fired from a handgun, today delivered a ringing denunciation of gun control laws as useless, and instead demanded tougher penalties against "career criminals who use them."
Recalling the attempt on his life by John W. Hinckley Jr. in March, 1981, the president told a sympathetic audience of 3,000 at the National Rifle Association convention here:
"It's a nasty truth, but those who seek to inflict harm are not fazed by gun control laws. I happen to know this from personal experience."
Hinckley violated no laws when he purchased, in a Texas pawnshop, the handgun that he later used in the assassination attempt that left White House press secretary James S. Brady severely injured.
The president's long-scheduled appearance at the NRA convention today was another building block in his pre-1984 political strategy of touching base with key constituent groups. Reagan spoke here before leaving for the weekend at his California ranch.
In his strongly worded speech, Reagan also outlined his administration's efforts to control drug smuggling, and he leveled harsh criticism at the government of Cuba.
"I'm not one who often feels or too often vents anger. But I want the American people to know that they're faced with the most sinister and despicable actions. We have strong evidence that high-level Cuban government officials have been involved in smuggling drugs into the United States."
Reagan provided no specifics of this charge, which was aired recently at a hearing in Miami.
"Attorney General William French Smith and FBI Director William H. Webster have assured me that they will use every resource they have to combat this menace," Reagan said.
The president's speech, laced with rhetoric supporting the rights of gun owners and lavishing praise on the activities of the NRA, was given amid tight security at the Phoenix Convention Center, where signs warned the audience not to bring firearms into the hall.
"We've both heard the charge that supporting gun owners' rights encourages a violent, shoot-'em-up society," the president said. "But just a minute. Don't they understand that most violent crimes are not committed by decent, law-abiding citizens--they're committed by career criminals.
"Guns don't make criminals," Reagan said. "Hard-core criminals use guns, and locking them up and throwing away the key is the best gun control law we could ever have.
"So we have declared war on organized crime and the career criminal element in America," the president added. " . . . We want mandatory sentences, we want firm and speedy application of penalties, and we want to abolish parole for federal offenses." Reagan also called again for a mandatory sentence for any criminal who had a gun in his possession while committing a crime.
"But there is one thing we do not want: We will never disarm any American who seeks to protect his or her family from fear and harm," Reagan said to loud applause.
This reference to "fear and harm" comes right out of the NRA's strategy book for opposing gun control laws. By emphasizing fear of crime, the rifle association and other groups last year soundly defeated a gun control initiative on the California ballot.
To underscore this theme, Reagan today visited a "posse" of elderly crime-fighters in Sun City, a retirement community near here. And he departed from his prepared remarks to the NRA to recall a letter he received as California governor in which a convicted burglar wrote him from San Quentin Prison saying that burglars would like gun control because it would remove the uncertainty of whether a homeowner "has a gun in the drawer or on the table."
Although some White House officials attempted to soften the impact of the NRA speech by surrounding it with less-strident political appearances, Reagan was unrestrained today in his appeal to the NRA, which claims a membership of more than 2.5 million and is one of Washington's most aggressive lobbying organizations.
Reagan also promised to support efforts to soften current gun legislation.
But he stopped short of a full endorsement of legislation sponsored by Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho) and Rep. Harold L. Volkmer (D-Mo.) that would remove restrictions against the sale of firearms by mail in the 1968 Gun Control Act.
A subplot in the politics of Reagan's appearance today was his endorsement of the NRA's current leadership, including top executive Harlon Carter. Carter is being challenged by another faction led by his rival, Neal Knox, who was earlier ousted from his post as the NRA's top lobbyist.
Before that ouster, Knox had angered some senior White House officials when he switched positions on abolition of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, long a target of the NRA.