I have no idea whether this is true or not. The source is Brad Meltzer, a comic book author, novelist and occasional nonfiction writer, writing in the New York Daily News. Meltzer says that he was talking with Secret Service agents, getting information for his latest book, a political thriller:
We were talking about Reagan and that day he was shot. Then one of the agents offered this secret: When Reagan was President, he carried his own gun.
I couldn’t believe it.
“It’s true,” they said. A .38. Reagan used to hide it in his briefcase and take it on Air Force One.
Whatever you think of Reagan, you have to admit, he had a black belt in badassery.
I would like to believe it’s true. Reagan has said that when he was the President of the Screen Actors Guild and was targeted for assassination by the Communist Party, he slept for a while with a gun under his pillow. This source cites a footnote in the book Dutch to the effect that Reagan said he carried a pistol in his briefcase while he was president. Maybe Steve Hayward knows the answer, one way or the other.
STEVE adds: I think this is unlikely to be true, because the Secret Service would have had a fit. I do know from one agent I interviewed that shortly after his election in 1980, when he repaired to his ranch north of Santa Barbara for a few days and the Secret Service was installing its facilities on the ridge above his house, Reagan got up one morning, saw a coyote, and promptly reached into his closet where he kept several firearms, got out a rifle, and shot the coyote. Which sent the Secret Service into full panic mode, running down the hill with guns drawn.
“I guess I should have warned you fellas I was going to do that,” Reagan said with his usual grin. The upshot, though, was that the Secret Service told Reagan he just couldn’t go shooting on his ranch any more, and they took his guns away from him for the duration of his presidency. Or so they say. He could have been cagey enough to keep a pistol they didn’t know about, but it seems unlikely that we’d never heard about it before now.
In addition to putting in thick bullet-proof glass at his ranch house, which caused the wall under the largest such window to sag badly, they built Reagan a panic room of sorts—a heavy, steel lined closet that would have been the refuge of last resort if his ranch (which has a huge and hard to guard perimeter) was overrun. They took seriously the threat of a Libyan assassin in 1981 and once again years later—even after Reagan left office. One might have thought that Reagan would have had some kind of access to a firearm in that panic room.
I do know the Secret Service also didn’t want Reagan to operate a chain saw (he had several) to cut brush on the ranch, but they figured out fast that Reagan knew how to use one a lot better than any agents in the detail who offered to cut brush for him.