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[Copyright © 1996 Investors Business Daily, All rights
reserved. Originally published as Investor's Business
Daily -- National Issue, Feb.6, 1996 at A1. With permission.]
A New Way to Control Crime?
'Saturday Night Specials'
Bans Haven't Worked
By Charles Oliver
The city of West Hollywood, Calif., has brought the issue
of handgun control back onto the front pages.
West Hollwood's city council last month voted to ban the
sale of so-called Saturday night specials. And that vote seems to have spurred
gun-control activists elsewhere to action.
Already, the nearby cities of Compton, Huntington Park,
Santa Monica and Los Angeles are set to vote on bans.
"I believe dozens, even hundreds, of cities will follow our
lead," said Paul Koretz, one of the West Hollywood city council members who
backed the ban. "If things go well, we'll see a statewide ban in California, and
that could inspire bans in other states."
But such bans face some tough questions, and the answers
may not always be to gun-ban activists' liking. Have existing bans had any
effect on crime? Do criminals really prefer Saturday night specials to other
guns? Will laws against these guns really keep them from criminals? And even
more basic, just what is a Saturday night special?
All told, about a fourth of guns seized by police
nationwide probably would qualify as Saturday night specials under various state
laws. So such guns are used fairly often in gun-related crimes.
But, by volume, about a fourth of all handguns SOLD
probably would qualify under those laws. So Saturday night specials don't seem
to be used disproportionately in gun crimes.
Further, Justice Department figures show that only one in
10 violent crimes involve the use of a gun.
Thus, it isn't clear that Saturday night special laws would
have that much effect on crime rates.
Still, if such bans can keep guns from even a few
criminals, wouldn't it be worth passing them?
It's unclear as well that these bans would keep guns from
criminals. In 1986, the National Institute of Justice surveyed convicted felons
about their use of guns. It remains the most comprehensive study done on this
The survey found that five out of six gun-owning felons got
their guns on the black market or stole them. They don't buy them from the
retailers who would obey gun laws.
Indeed, to the extent that Saturday night special laws
work, they might simply encourage crooks to use larger-calibre handguns or
sawed-off shotguns that are more powerful.
Some police officers have expressed just this fear. A
report on police body armor by Congress's Office of Technology Assessment bears
Police officers told investigators they fear that Saturday
night special bans simply will force criminals to move to higher-caliber
handguns, an issue of obvious concern for law enforcement.
What effects have Saturday night special bans had on crime
in the states that passed them?
"There doesn't seem to be any difference in crime rates
once you control for other factors," said Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida
State University who has studied gun-control laws for many years.
Take the state of Maryland. In 1988, the state passed a ban
on Saturday night specials. It was perhaps the most high-profile ban ever
But the next year, homicide rates in Maryland climbed 20%,
and they stayed at that high level through 1994, the latest year for which
complete figures are available.
Meanwhile, the national homicide rate grew only 8% in that
time period. Yet the number of gun-related homicides in Maryland grew almost 30%
from 1988 to 1994.
"The law accomplished what we wanted," said Vinnie De
Marco, a spokesman for Handgun Control Inc. who worked on the Maryland ban. "We
never said that it would be a panacea for gun violence. But it was a step in the
"There's no way to know what would have happened, how much
worse things could have been, if the law wasn't passed," he added.
If Saturday night special bans aren't very effective in
keeping guns out of the hands of crooks, what do they do?
A 1986 National Institute of Justice study found that these
laws do keep guns out of the hands of another group: the law-abiding poor.
Minorities especially feel the brunt of these laws, and
critics say that's no accident.
The very earliest laws banning cheap handguns explicitly
aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of poor blacks, who were said to be too
violent or too immature to be trusted with them.
Such overt racism is no longer part of the gun control
movement. Some who support gun bans have been quite open about their desire to
keep guns from poor people in general. But most deny that is part of their
They do seem to believe that gun bans have no real
"The fact that some people may have to wait longer and
think more about purchasing a gun is not a negative in my mind," Koretz
"The fact is that having a gun in your home means that you
are more likely to be shot or to shoot a loved one than to use that gun to
defend yourself against a criminal," he added.
Handgun Control Inc. advances a similar view about the
dangers of owning a gun for self-protection.
It's based upon some studies that show that for each
criminal killed in self-defense by a gun owner, there are many more suicides or
For instance, one study published in the New England
Journal of Medicine in 1986 looked at six years of firearms deaths in Seattle.
It found that for every case of killing in self-defense using a firearm kept in
a home, there were 1.3 accidental deaths, 4.6 criminal homicides and 37 suicides
This view is disputed by FSU's Kleck, who has conducted
comprehensive studies of the defensive uses of firearms.
Kleck says that Americans use guns of all types to defend
themselves 2.5 million times each year. By way of contrast, guns are used in
just over 500,000 crimes each year.
Justice Department studies show that those who use guns to
defend themselves are less likely to be hurt than victims who offer no
But in the vast majority of cases, the person defending
himself with a gun never has to fire a shot. Simply showing the weapon scares
off a crook. Even when a shot is fired, it's often a warning shot or one that
just wounds the attacker.
Thus, simply looking at the number of criminals killed by
gun owners--which come to no more than about 3,000 each year--clearly
undercounts the benefits of gun ownership.
One reason for the unclear benefits of bans on Saturday
night specials stems from the toughest question to answer: Just what is one?
"A Saturday night special is a lot like pornography.
Everybody feels they know what it is, and most people feel it's bad. But when
you actually try to define it, you can't get people to agree on what it is. And
any definition you come up with seems pretty arbitrary," said T. Markus Funk, a
legal scholar who has written about Saturday night special bans.
When most people hear the term Saturday night special, they
probably think of a cheap, small handgun favored by criminals.
But what is cheap? $90? $100? $150. And what is small?
These are questions that have to be answered before any ban can be written.
Let's say that any small gun that costs $150 or less is a
Satruday night special.
If the retailer then jacks the price of a $150 gun up $1,
is it no longer banned? That would be odd. After all, it's still the same
To get around that problem, most laws define cheapness not
by price but by the material the gun is made of, or the way it's made.
West Hollywood defines a Saturday night special, in part,
as a gun capable of being concealed on a person, made of zinc alloy or castable
Illinois, South Carolina, Hawaii and Minnesota ban guns
made of metals that melt below a certain temperature, usually 800 degrees
Fahrenheit. This basically targets zinc alloy and aluminum but not steel.
Now zinc alloy and aluminum are generally cheaper than
steel, and most guns made of these metals are quite inexpensive.
But that doesn't mean that all guns made of these materials
are cheap. Nor does it mean that any of them are bad guns.
Many police officers across the country carry Beretta
pistols made of aluminum, for instance, and these officers swear by these
Plus, these guns are often defined by size. Many laws state
that, in addition to being made of a cheaper metal, a gun must have a certain
barrel length to qualify as a Saturday night special.
Usually a barrel length of three or four inches or less is
Criminals do prefer short guns. That's clear from both
interviews with convicted felons and from data gathered by the country's police
forces. Three-fourths of guns confiscated by police have a barrel length of
three inches or less, for instance.
But that doesn't mean that all of these guns are Saturday
night specials. Many relatively expensive guns have short barrels.
Further, according to Funk, about a third of those
short-barreled guns confiscated by police have had their barrels cut down to
Banning short-barreled guns wouldn't stop crooks from
sawing off the barrels of longer guns.
Transmitted: 3/7/96 1:42 AM (aaafoqyp)