If a Saturday night special is defined as any handgun with a barrel length less than 3 inches, a caliber of .32 or less, and a retail cost of under $100, there are roughly six million such guns in the United States. Each year, between 1 and 6 percent of them are employed in violent gun crimes, a far higher percentage of criminal misuse than for other guns. Although opinion polls find the majority of Americans in favor of banning Saturday night specials, the practical case for banning these weapons is not compelling.
Criminals do prefer easily concealable weapons; roughly 75 percent of all crime handguns seized or held by the police have barrel lengths of 3 inches or less. At least for serious felons, though, low price is a very secondary factor in choice of firearm. Experienced felons prefer powerful guns to cheap ones. The Wright and Rossi survey, which focused on hardened criminals, found that only 15 percent had used a Saturday night special as their last gun used in a crime. It should not be surpris- ing that serious criminals prefer guns as powerful as those carried by their most important adversaries, the police.
It is often said that a Saturday night special is "the kind of gun that has only one purpose: to kill people." Again, this is untrue. Such guns are commonly used as hunting sidearms, referred to as "trail guns" or "pack guns." One does not need long-range accuracy to kill a snake, and lightness and compactness are important. Nor can all hunters afford $200 for a quality sidearm. More importantly, inexpensive handguns are used for self-defense by the poor.
There is no question that laws against Saturday night specials are leveled at blacks. The first such law came in 1870 when Tennessee attempted to disarm freedmen by prohibiting the sale of all but "Army and Navy" handguns. Ex-confederate soldiers already had their military handguns, but ex-slaves could not afford high-quality weapons. The situation today is not very different. As the federal district court in Washington, D.C., has noted, laws aimed at Saturday night specials have the effect of selectively disarming minorities, who, because of their poverty, must live in crime-ridden areas. Little wonder that the Congress on Racial Equality filed an amicus curiae brief in a 1985 suit challenging the Maryland Court of Appeals' virtual ban on low-caliber handguns. As the Wright and Rossi National Institute of Justice study concluded:
The people most likely to be deterred from acquiring a handgun by exceptionally high prices or by the nonavailability of certain kinds of handguns are not felons intent on arming themselves for criminal purposes (who can, if all else fails, steal the handgun they want), but rather poor people who have decided they need a gun to protect themselves against the felons but who find that the cheapest gun in the market costs more than they can afford to pay.
Indeed, one wonders what a ban on these low-caliber guns would accomplish. Criminals who use them could easily take up higher-powered guns. Some criminals might switch to knives, but severe knife wounds are just as deadly (and almost as easy to inflict at close range, where most robberies occur). If a ban on Saturday night specials failed to reduce crime, is it likely that its proponents would admit defeat and repeal the law? Or would they conclude that a ban on all handguns was what was really needed? Once criminals started substituting sawed-off shotguns, would the new argument be that long guns too must be banned? That is the point that gun control in Great Britain is approaching, after beginning with a seemingly innocuous registration system for handguns.