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Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Nixon Supported Gun Control

Official White House photo of President Richard Nixon

Official White House photo of President Richard Nixon, 24 December 1971. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, PD.

As Congress debates passing new gun control measures, it’s worth looking back in recent history at the relationship between a Republican President and Democratic Congress on this issue. As taped conversations from our presidential recordings archives reveal, President Richard Nixon expressed private support for banning handguns altogether and publically proposed banning “Saturday night specials” in response to gun violence against politicians in 1972 and 1973. Yet, he deferred to Congress to hammer out a legislative deal, which never fully materialized.  

Taped conversations with aides on May 16, 1972, the day following an attempted assassination that paralyzed presidential candidate George Wallace, reveal Nixon’s personal position on hand guns:

I don’t know why any individual should have a right to have a revolver in his house…The kids usually kill themselves with it and so forth…can’t we go after handguns, period?

I know the rifle association will be against it, the gun makers will be against it. [But] people should not have handguns.

But, a few days later, Nixon expressed opposition to measures that would go beyond banning handguns. He asked rhetorically:

What do they want to do, just disarm the populace? Disarm the good folks and leave the arms in the hands of criminals?

In another taped conversation, Nixon told his assistant for domestic affairs, John Ehrlichman, “We’ve got to be for gun control, John. I mean for hand gun control.” In response to a memo he was reading at the time, Nixon told Ehrlichman that state and local controls on guns have never worked and therefore it was a matter of federal concern. The conversation continues:

Nixon: We just ought to say that the bill is a matter for concern and we I feel we ought to outlaw them …

Ehrlichman: You can say you wholeheartedly support Congressional action on that front.

Is this the Moment for Political Action on Gun Violence?

President Bill Clinton Address Gun Laws in his 2000 State of the Union Address in the wake of the Columbine, Colorado Tragedy.

In the wake of the tragedy in Newton, Connecticut, the nation could be poised for a more serious dialogue about gun violence. Even President Obama, who was reticent in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado shootings amidst the height of electioneering to risk losing swing voters, now seems more willing to engage in a national dialogue on preventing gun violence. On Sunday, President Obama traveled to Newton, Connecticut to address the community at an interfaith vigil. As he noted in his speech, it was the fourth time in his presidency that the nation has come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings. Indeed, according to a Mother Jones investigation, spree shootings like those in Newton, Aurora, Virginia Tech and Columbine have been on the rise in the United States (a less restrictive definition of mass shootings employed by James Allan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern, finds that there hasn’t been an increase). There have been at least 62 mass shootings in the past three decades, with 24 in the last seven years alone. In addition to these shootings, there have also been “an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children.” President Obama told the community:

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.

If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.

While the President refrained from advocating specific gun control laws, he noted:

In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.

In pressing for action, President Obama follows in the footsteps of his Democratic predecessors, though he has been more restrained thus far by refraining from advocating specific measures.

Election Year Politics: Don’t Expect a Gun Law Showdown

President Clinton Addresses Gun Laws in his 2000 State of the Union Address in the wake of the Columbine, Colorado Tragedy.

In the wake of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, there is a window of opportunity to discuss gun laws because people are paying attention. The real question is whether the presidential candidates will have enough courage to seize the moment and begin a national dialogue on gun laws. After all, Aurora is not singular incident. Indeed, just three days before, a man carrying an assault weapon fired into a crowded bar in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, leaving 17 injured, and indeed other recent examples abound. Instead of engaging in a real, albeit difficult, debate over the issues, both presidential candidates have focused on comforting victims and have hidden behind the argument of supporting of the Second Amendment. President Obama appears unwilling to risk losing support from swing voters, while Mitt Romney appears unwilling to go against the party line.

Although President Obama pledged to reinstate a ban on assault weapons, he hasn’t pursued it. Moreover, he’s not going to act on any new gun control initiatives in a close election year when he might lose voters who support gun rights. Instead, as Press Secretary Jay Carney put it on Sunday, “He believes we need to take steps that protect Second Amendment rights of the American people but that ensure that we are not allowing weapons into the hands of individuals who should not, by existing law, obtain those weapons.” President Obama might be able to afford to take for granted those in his party who support gun control, they’re unlikely to defect to the Republican Party, after all. On the other hand, not acting adds to the list of items the president has not delivered to his constituency and that could depress supporter turnout.

On the other side of the aisle, Mitt Romney gave his position yesterday, reiterating that there isn’t a need to renew the federal ban on assault rifles. Never mind the fact that as governor of Massachusetts he signed a ban on assault weapons and quadrupled the fee for gun licenses. As a presidential candidate, Romney is of course towing the party line.