Miller Center

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.