A just-published article on the news website Slate focuses on the little-known fact that Eleanor Roosevelt, who became famous and widely admired as an activist for causes such as integration and international human rights, possessed a handgun permit from New York state. The permit, issued to her in 1957, when she was 72, is part of an exhibit featuring the contents of Mrs. Roosevelt’s wallet, at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, N.Y.
As detailed in the former first lady’s autobiography, then-Secret Service director William H. Moran actually compelled her to become a handgun owner during the first year of her husband’s presidency, because she insisted on driving her own car around the country alone, and spurned attempts to provide her with an armed chauffeur or bodyguard. “He went one day to [FDR adviser] Louis Howe, plunked down a revolver on the table and said, ‘Well, all right, if Mrs. Roosevelt is going to drive around the country alone, at least ask her to carry this in the car.” She wrote that she complied and that summer asked one of her husband’s former bodyguards from his tenure as New York governor to teach her how to use the weapon.
“After considerable practice, I finally learned to hit a target,” Roosevelt recalled in her book. “I would never have used it on a human being, but I thought that I ought to know how to handle a revolver if I had one in my possession.” (Here’s a picture of her practicing her shooting.)
A 1976 Associated Press article reported that while she kept the revolver in the glove compartment of her car, officials at the FDR Library didn’t know what became of the weapon. Roosevelt made no other references to her revolver in her autobiography, so it’s unclear whether she continued to carry it through the remainder of her husband’s presidency or afterward. Her friends told the New York Times in 1972 that she had obtained the New York state permit but hadn’t actually carried a firearm with her. However, according to biographer Allida Black, when Roosevelt defied death threats by the Ku Klux Klan to travel to Tennessee in 1958 to attend a civil rights workshop, she and the woman who picked her up at the Nashville airport drove to the conference with “a loaded pistol on the front seat between them.”
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