Welcome to Part Two of our discussion of the Saturday Night Special. Today we are diving into the laws, the controversy, and the truth about these pesky little guns.
The most widely known act of gun control involving Saturday Nigth Specials is the Gun Control Act of 1968. What caused the federal government to pass the GCA?
Well, the simplest answer is two Kennedys and a King. The assassination of John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King JR. occurred fairly close together and were all done by firearms. This brought public support for the GCA, and the changes were sweeping. The GCA banned mail-order sales, established federal licensing for dealers and manufacturers, and created import restrictions and serial number requirements.
For our discussion today, the most important is the import requirements. The GCA created the ridiculous Sport Purposes standard for imported firearms. As in, imported firearms must “be generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.” The ATF says those are hunting and competitive target shooting. The ATF does not consider practical shooting as a qualifier either.
The Point Standard
For handguns, this created a points standard for automatics and revolvers. The points were based on everything from barrel length to what type of sights and grips the gun has. This point system became a de facto ban on imported cheap, small caliber weapons. It also banned high-quality weapons like the Walther PPK, leading to the creation of the PPK/S.
Was this a great victory for the anti-gun crowd?
No, not really. It just became an annoyance. Smith and Wesson produced the .22LR Escort to satisfy the demand for cheap guns once Rohm seemed out of the market.
Companies like Rohm still imported revolvers, but they did it in pieces and assembled them in the United States. Additionally, a ton of small American companies popped up producing pot-metal automatics. These guns became the new generation of Saturday Night Special.
The “Ring of Fire” consists of six companies out of Los Angeles that all grouped somewhat close together and most produced cheap little automatics. Of the six, only Arcadia Machine and Tool produced high-quality firearms that didn’t fall into the Saturday Night Special arena.
Raven, Lorcin, Bryco, Davis, and Phoenix Arms were the other five. (As a side note, Bryco used to be Jennings and would be Jimenez Arms in the future.) Together these companies produced 34% of all handguns in the United States.
Robert Sherrill, a very anti-gun reporter, wrote a book called The Saturday Night Special and Other Guns in 1973. On page 280, he offers this criticism of the GCA:
“The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed not to control guns but to control blacks….”
Not The First Ban on Saturday Night Specials (Or the Last)
This isn’t the first time that anti-gunners, racists, and elitists have worked together to prohibit the poor from owning firearms. In 1870 the Tennessee Legislature passed the Act to Preserve the Peace and Prevent Homicide. This act banned the sale of any handgun except the expensive Army and Navy model revolvers. In 1882 Arkansas passed an identical law.
Extending beyond the GCA, numerous states passed laws that targeted these pot metal guns. These laws would prohibit the sale of firearms made of materials with low melting points, like zinc and well-powdered metals in general. Minnesota, Illinois, Hawaii, and New York City all have these laws on the books.
Are Saturday Night Specials the choice of criminals?
Sure, but so is every other gun. The real question is, were these firearms used more often than other guns for criminal purposes? That was the accusation and part of the reason why the GCA passed. Without a doubt, there were some high-profile shootings involving these guns before and after the GCA.
Sirhan Sirhan wielded a rimfire Iver Johnson Cadet in his assassination of Robert Kennedy. President Willian McKinley caught a .32 S&W from an Iver Johnson, and Giuseppe Zangara killed a Chicago mayor while attempting to kill Franklin Roosevelt with an Iver Johnson.
After the GCA passed, Saturday Night Specials were used in the assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan and Beatles member John Lennon. The Reagan assassination involved a Rohm RG 14, and the Lennon assassination involved a Charter Arms revolver.
While these situations raised the profile of Saturday Night Specials, were they really a threat to the general public?
Evidence to the Contrary
According to the Police Foundation, no, not really. On February 22nd, 1977, the Police Foundation released a report titled Firearm Abuse: A Research and Policy Report. The report authored by Steven Brill is fairly extensive, but in regards to Saturday Night Specials:
“Data show the frequency with which higher-priced, well-known brands of handguns appear in the samples of firearms believed to be involved in murder, robbery, assault, and other felonies. This evidence clearly indicates that the belief that so-called Saturday Night Specials (inexpensive handguns) are used to commit the great majority of these felonies is misleading and counterproductive….”
In 1985 James Wright and Peter Rossi wrote a paper called Armed Criminal In America for the National Institute of Justice. They interviewed various criminals and felons about their weapons and how they acquired them. What they looked for in a firearm and more. When they began observing the handguns owned by criminals, they found that:
“…125 of the most recent handguns owned by these men were Saturday Night Specials, which amounts to 14%. This, moreover, is certainly an overestimate of the true SNS percentage, since at least some of the short, small-caliber weapons would not have been especially cheap.”
Saturday Night Specials Redeemed
I can’t help but think that Saturday Night Specials are another American boogeyman, like the Satanic Panic, assault weapons, and whatever else is being peddled to sell fear. I wouldn’t recommend Saturday Night Specials for self-defense by any means, and even cheap guns these days greatly outperform the cheap guns of old.
With that said, I still think they are neat pieces of American gun culture and history. Heck, I even own the Rohm RG10, a .22 Short revolver that most certainly qualifies as a Saturday Night Special. Pull the trigger and it goes bang.
What do you folks think? Am I wrong?
What’s your experience with the Saturday Night Special?