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.