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.
Publicly, Nixon would only go so far as to call on Congress to pass a ban on Saturday night specials. In a June 29, 1972 press conference, Nixon told reporters:
I have always felt there should be a Federal law for the control of handguns. As you will note, Mr. Kleindienst testified to that effect earlier today and he did testify to that effect after checking my own position on it.
The problem there is to write the law, the legislation, in such a way that it is precise and deals with that kind of handgun which ought to be controlled. And I am referring now to the Saturday night specials. These are ones where you would have Federal jurisdiction because many of them come in from abroad and, being imported from abroad, it would be particularly a matter for Federal control.
I believe, however, that the legislation, if it is therefore precisely written--and we have been cooperating with the Senate committee, particularly with Senator Hruska, in attempting to work out the proper language--that the Congress should pass such a law, and I will sign it, ruling out Saturday night specials, which I think is the major source of this kind of crime you speak about.
The shooting of Sen. John Stennis (D-Mississippi) on January 30, 1973 once again revived the gun control debate in the White House. On the day of the shooting, Nixon told White House special counsel Charles Colson:
At least I hope that Saturday night special legislation, at least we're supporting that, you know. We're not for gun control generally, but we are for that. God damn it that ought to be passed. Or was it passed?
When Colson responded that the bill had not been passed, Nixon responded, “We better damn well be for it now, huh?”
At a press conference on the following day, Nixon told reporters that the Stennis’ shooting was “senseless.” When asked by a reporter why the White House hadn’t spoken out very strong against gun controls and whether the incident had given Nixon thoughts, the president responded that “the problem with that is not so much the White House speaking out on handguns and Saturday night specials,” but:
We have, and I have, as you know, advocated legislation to deal with what we call the Saturday night specials, which can be acquired by anybody, including juveniles, and apparently there are some suggestions that juveniles were those involved in this case. I am not charging that, incidentally. I am saying what I read in the papers, most of which, as you know, is true.
Nixon then deferred to Congress to come up with legislation that would pass:
So, under the circumstances, I feel that Senator Hruska, who introduced the bill before and then it came a cropper in the Senate Judiciary Committee, will now work with the Judiciary Committee in attempting to find the formula which will get the support necessary to deal with this specific problem, without, at the same time, running afoul of the rights of those who believe that they need guns for hunting and all that sort of thing….
Incidentally, the legislation that we originally suggested or that we discussed with Senator Hruska, I thought precisely dealt with the problem, but it did not get through the Senate. My guess is that Senator Stennis--everything perhaps has a down side and an up side; I guess everything really does--but the very fact that Senator Stennis was the victim of one of these things--we thought this was the case when Governor Wallace was--but in this instance, it was apparently one of these small handguns that most people, most reasonable people, except for the all-out opponents of any kind of legislation in this field, most reasonable people believe it should be controlled. Perhaps we can get some action. I hope the Senate does act.
I have asked the Attorney General-had asked incidentally before this happened-as one of his projects for this year to give us a legislative formula, not one that would simply speak to the country, and not get through, but one that can get through the Congress. That is the problem.
In what would perhaps be an astonishing remark for a president today, Nixon told the reporters:
Let me say, personally, I have never hunted in my life. I have no interest in guns and so forth. I am not interested in the National Rifle Association or anything from a personal standpoint. But I do know that, in terms of the United States Congress, what we need is a precise definition which will keep the guns out of the hands of the criminals and not one that will impinge on the rights of others to have them for their own purposes in a legitimate way.