California Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday signed legislation making it easier to file civil suits against gun dealers and manufacturers, joining other left-leaning governors in pushing gun reform legislation in the wake of the Supreme Court’s deregulatory Bruen decision. On this week’s special Now & Then Live Taping, “Racism and the Second Amendment,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed the history of the Second Amendment with Carol Anderson, focusing on the racist origins of gun rights and the current Republican obstruction to meaningful reform. 50 years ago, in 1972, a similar logjam on gun safety legislation emerged amid a rapid uptick in the popularity of small pistols and after two mass shootings involving national political figures.
In the Fall of 1971, Democratic Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, from his perch as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee, organized hearings to look into banning Saturday Night Specials, snub-nosed, inexpensive pistols that were used in at least one-third of American gun murders.
Bayh’s effort built on the 1968 Gun Control Act, which President Johnson signed into law immediately shortly after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. The earlier Act banned the foreign import of any gun with a barrel measuring under three inches–the rough designation of a Special. More than 20 American gun manufacturers, however, began importing the parts and assembling them in the United States. Domestic production of the small guns had boomed from 60,000 in 1968 to 1 million in 1971. The total manufacture of guns in the U.S. increased 250% between 1962 and 1968. Bayh was not operating in a vacuum; polls found that 75% of Americans wanted further regulation on the Specials.
Harold Bergan, a young aide to Illinois Congressman Sidney Yates, testified before the Subcommittee on October 27th, 1971. The previous January, robbers shot Bergan while he was packing up his car near Dupont Circle for a vacation. The bullets, from a Special, permanently paralyzed his left leg.
Bergan postulated that the robber shot him out of suspicion that he, too, had a weapon: “I have concluded that the robber pulled the trigger because he feared that my fumbling for my wallet was actually an attempt to draw a pistol to defend myself. I would like to suggest that I was the victim not only of robbers and a gun, but of the expectation that law-abiding citizens of this country walk the streets armed with pistols.”
Notwithstanding the powerful testimony, Roman Hruska, a Nebraska Republican known for his fierce opposition to any gun regulations and his equally fierce support for all pornography reguations, quickly became Bayh’s adversary on the Subcommittee. Hruska’s stand reflected those of many pro-gun legislators across Congress; 65 gun reform bills lay languishing, including a much-publicized bill by Staten Island Democratic Representative John M. Murphy, who echoed concerns from the NYPD that over 25% of their confiscated weapons in 1970 were Specials.
The logjam was broken on May 15th, 1972, when 21-year-old Arthur Bremer shot four people, including former Alabama Governor and avowed segregationist George Wallace, then campaigning for a long-shot bid at the White House, at a mall in suburban Laurel, Maryland. Bremer’s weapon was an $80, .38 caliber revolver dubbed the “Undercover 2,” manufactured in Bridgeport, Connecticut and purchased by Bremer at Casanova Guns in Milwaukee. The firearm would have been banned under Bayh’s proposal. Wallace was paralyzed from the waist down.
Two weeks after Wallace’s paralysis, on May 29th, a 22-year-old janitor named Harvey McLeod opened fire in front of Raleigh’s North Hills Shopping Mall with a .22 caliber rifle. He killed three people and injured seven more. One of the wounded was Wes Hayden, the Press Secretary to 75-year-old North Carolina Senator B. Everett Jordan.
The aging Senator faced a bruising June 2nd Democratic Party primary run-off with Nick Galifianakis–the uncle of The Hangover comedian Zach Galifianakis–and had decided to make a spur-of-the-moment campaign stop at the mall.
Police declared that McLeod could not have known Jordan would be on site before the shooting began, but the presence of the Senator, particularly coming so soon after the Wallace assassination attempt, further ratcheted up the national attention being paid to guns.
On the day following the shooting, Jordan made clear that his close brush with a mass casualty event would not change his views on gun control. “I’ve said very many times and am still very much of the opinion that there is no way you can keep firearms of any kind out of the hands of criminals.”
Jordan also highlighted that, unlike with Bremer’s weapon, McLeod’s gun would not be regulated under Bayh’s proposed legislation. “Rifles are not normally used to shoot people with, so I don’t know any way to curb them if someone wants to use one like that.”
Wallace also kept up his aversion to gun control. Having won 370 delegates as a Dixiecrat in the Democratic primary, he offered an alternative plank on guns in advance of the Democratic National Convention: “The constitutional right of the people to keep and bear arms must remain inviolate. A disarmed citizenry would soon lose its liberty and freedom.”
Hruska, however, was at least partially swayed, telling the press in late May, “Banning the Saturday Night Special will have no adverse effect on the law-abiding citizens who use and own handguns properly.”
On June 27th, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported out 12-2 the measure to ban Saturday Night Specials. On the same day, Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel spoke to a House committee led by New York Democrat Emanuel Celler, who was holding similar hearings. “I recognize that there are legitimate uses for certain kinds of guns, but I know of no legitimate use of the Saturday Night Special—the cheap, small-caliber handguns that are shooting up society,” Mandel stated.
Even National Rifle Association Executive Director Maxwell E. Rich told Celler that he would theoretically support a ban on the Specials, but hedged by suggesting that enforcement might infringe on civil liberties. “If we were to establish broad Federal authority in this area, we would also create the need for a national police force for enforcement, which concept we strongly oppose,” Rich warned.
President Nixon, too, offered lukewarm support for a limited bill. On June 29th, 1972, Nixon stated during a news conference, “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.”
Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, meanwhile, offered a more full-throated endorsement of a Saturday Night Special ban: “I’m dead set against those guns. They ought to be banned totally, completely and thoroughly.”
In early August, Teddy Kennedy–whose brother Bobby’s killer, Sirhan Sirhan, had used a Saturday Night Special as his weapon–excoriated his Senate colleagues for their delays: “Does there have to be a Tet offensive on the streets of America before a decision is made against more escalation?” Kennedy also argued that legislators considered gun legislation exclusively after high-profile carnage: “The only time this body is prepared to act is after a national tragedy.”
The Senate listened to Kennedy’s plea, and on August 9th, 1972 voted lopsidedly to ban the domestic production of Saturday Night Specials, defined as any pistol or revolver with a barrel length under three inches.
The final Senate bill fell short of Bayh’s hopes. While the proposal barred manufacturers and dealers from producing or selling the snub-nosed guns, private individuals could continue to carry the legally-purchased Saturday Night Specials they had on hand, even in some cases allowing for transfer of the arms between individuals.
Kennedy offered a last-ditch amendment to push through an ambitious scheme for licensing and registering all American guns, but was soundly defeated by a vote of 78-11. Crusading Michigan Senator Phil Hart went even further, pushing a quixotic amendment that would ban all private ownership of handguns within a year, saying, “We must dry up this vast reservoir of guns.”
In a particularly painful concession, Bayh and Kennedy watched as Republicans stripped back a provision in the 1968 legislation that required gun dealers to take down detailed information on those purchasing .22 ammunition, the same caliber that had killed Bobby Kennedy.
As the bill headed to the House, Bayh forebodingly told the press, “I honestly have to say that one is naive not to recognize the tremendous political pressure from the gun lobby.” He was right to be concerned.
Despite the NRA’s earlier lukewarm attitude toward the Special ban, House legislators were soon barraged with postcards from the gun lobby and anguished constituents opposing the Bayh bill. Republican Indiana Congressman David W. Dennis received 1,000 letters from his mostly-rural district, expressly decrying banning the Saturday Night Special. “While I will of course give the bill careful consideration, my inclination and present intentions are to vote against it, if it comes before the House,” Dennis told the press in late September 1972. “This accords with the strong majority sentiment of our area, as expressed to me by my constituents.”
He never had to vote against the Bayh bill. Despite several further efforts throughout the 1970s, particularly after the 1973 robbery shooting with a Saturday Night Special of Mississippi Senator John Stennis, Bayh’s bill never received full House attention.
On September 16th, 1972, the first episode of the third season of the topical sitcom All in the Family, “Archie and the Editorial,” premiered on CBS. Conservative patriarch Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) becomes incensed after watching a television news editorial in favor of gun control and begins arguing with his daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers). “Daddy, how can you be against gun control with all the assassinations?” Gloria begins. “Look at it—the Kennedys, Martin Luther King. What about the shooting of Governor Wallace?”
“I’m saying, maybe Governor Wallace wouldn’t have got shot if he had a rod in his mitts,” Archie angrily responds.
The Norman Lear satire was not too far off from the tenor increasingly taken by pro-gun forces. The imports of Saturday Night Specials would continue to grow for decades, even as the focus on the weapons faded–particularly as military-grade guns became far cheaper and more accessible during the 1980s. Today, the weapons may have changed, and some legislative unity was found after the brutality of Uvalde, but the rhetorical and strategic stand-off between those advocating for and against gun regulations has remained staggeringly similar between 1972 and 2022.
For more on the uptick in gun violence in the early 1970s, read Robert Sherrill’s 1973 The Saturday Night Special. And for a modern legal contextualization of the Saturday Night Special debate, read Duke Law School student Sam Wolter’s fascinating 2021 article, “The Continuing Relevance of the Saturday Night Special.”
And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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Catch up on some recent Time Machine’s deep dives into history:
- ‘Some Startling Disclosures’: Herman and Betty Talmadge and the 1970s Political Alcohol Reckoning
- ‘Liberty Cannot Bloom Amid Hate’: The Retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall and the Rightward Drift of the Supreme Court
- ‘Do Away with Me!’: Thomas J. Dodd’s Senate Censure Hearings and the Evolution of Political Accountability