WASHINGTON — Few presidents in modern times have been as interested in gun control as Richard Nixon, of all people. He proposed ridding the market of Saturday night specials, contemplated banning handguns altogether and refused to pander to gun owners by feigning interest in their weapons.
Several previously unreported Oval Office recordings and White House memos from the Nixon years show a conservative president who at times appeared willing to take on the National Rifle Association, a powerful gun lobby then as now, even as his aides worried about the political ramifications.
"I don't know why any individual should have a right to have a revolver in his house," Nixon said in a taped conversation with aides. "The kids usually kill themselves with it and so forth." He asked why "can't we go after handguns, period?"
Nixon went on: "I know the rifle association will be against it, the gun makers will be against it." But "people should not have handguns." He laced his comments with obscenities, as was typical.
Nixon made his remarks in the Oval Office on May 16, 1972, the day after a would-be assassin shot and paralyzed segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace. As president, Nixon never publicly called for a ban on all handguns. Instead, he urged Congress to pass more modest legislation banning Saturday night specials, which were cheaply made, easily concealed and often used by criminals.
Not all of the president's men appeared to share his passion on the issue. The recordings and memos show that Nixon administration officials saw gun control as a political loser.
Nixon, a Republican, did say publicly that if Congress passed a ban on Saturday night specials, he would sign it. But in a sign of how potent the NRA was even 40 years ago, this narrow piece of legislation never made it to his desk, and there is no sign that he ever sent a draft bill to Capitol Hill.
Today, President Barack Obama faces similar hurdles in trying to ban assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines. Gun control advocates say no one needs such powerful weapons to kill an intruder or take down an animal. In Nixon's time, the argument of such advocates was that Saturday night specials were too poorly made to be relied on for self-defense or hunting.
"Let me ask you," Nixon said to Attorney General John Mitchell in June 1971, "there is only one thing you are checking on, that's the manufacture of those $20 guns? We should probably stop that." Saturday night specials sold for $10 to $30 at the time. Mitchell responded that banning those guns would be "pretty difficult, actually," because of the gun lobby.
"No hunters are going to use $20 guns," Nixon countered.
"No, but the gun lobby's against any incursion into the elimination of firearms," said Mitchell.
The term Saturday night special originated in Detroit, where police observed the frequency with which the guns were used to commit weekend mayhem. Lynyrd Skynyrd memorialized the weapon in its 1975 song, "Saturday Night Special," in which the Southern rock band sang: "Ain't good for nothin'/But put a man six feet in a hole."
Nixon's private comments were not always supportive of gun control, particularly measures that would go beyond handguns. For example, in a taped conversation just a few days after saying that people shouldn't have handguns, the president 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?"
But most of his comments on the tapes, available at the websites of the National Archives and of the University of Virginia's Miller Center, were in favor of stronger gun control.
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