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The phrase Saturday night special (SNS) is a slang term used in the United States and Canada for any inexpensive handgun. Saturday night specials have been defined as compact, inexpensive, small-caliber handguns with perceived low quality; however, there is no official definition of "Saturday night special" under federal law, though some states define "Saturday night specials" or "junk guns" by means of composition or materials strength. Low cost and high availability make these weapons attractive to many buyers despite their shortcomings. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, they were commonly referred to as suicide specials.
The term "Saturday night special" came into wider use with the passing of the Gun Control Act of 1968. The term (and the gun control act itself) have been described as racist in origin because the act banned the importation and manufacture of many inexpensive firearms, most notably a large number of revolvers made by Röhm (RG), which were typically purchased and owned by low-income African Americans.
Laws prohibiting or regulating the purchase of inexpensive handguns such as the Saturday night special are controversial in the United States. Saturday night specials are a legislative concern because of their offensive use by criminals and defensive possession by potential victims, particularly in low-income high-crime neighborhoods in large urban areas. The two primary areas of contention relate to the availability of guns and the effect of purchase price upon the demographic of who buys them.
In 2003, the NAACP filed suit against 45 gun manufacturers for creating what it called a "public nuisance" through the "negligent marketing" of handguns, which included models commonly described as Saturday night specials. The suit alleged that handgun manufacturers and distributors were guilty of marketing guns in a way that encouraged violence in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. "The gun industry has refused to take even basic measures to keep criminals and prohibited persons from obtaining firearms," NAACP President/CEO Kweisi Mfume said. "The industry must be as responsible as any other and it must stop dumping firearms in over-saturated markets. The obvious result of dumping guns is that they will increasingly find their way into the hands of criminals." The suit was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein, who ruled that members of the NAACP were not "uniquely harmed" by illegal use of firearms and therefore had no standing to sue.
Because the price of a firearm can determine who is able to buy it, the elimination of inexpensive firearms could have a direct effect upon those of lesser means. Roy Innis, president of the activist group Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), said "To make inexpensive guns impossible to get is to say that you're putting a money test on getting a gun. It's racism in its worst form." (CORE filed as an amicus curiae in a 1985 suit challenging Maryland's Saturday night special/low-caliber handgun ban.) The Wright and Rossi evaluation of the National Institute of Justice study (p. 238) 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." CORE filed a brief in the 2001 United States v. Emerson case stating that the term "saturday night special" refers to "nigger-town saturday night".
While Saturday night specials are commonly perceived as inexpensive, and therefore disposable after the commission of a crime, criminal behavior does not always conform to this expectation. A 1977 statistical survey of the "Saturday night special" concept by the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and several police departments across the nation showed that there is no clear statistical relationship between the price of a firearm and its likelihood to be used in a crime. While inexpensive weapons made up a large portion of the handgun market in 1974, 1975 and 1976, high-end weapons were represented by a ratio of almost 2:1. A survey of incarcerated felons in 1983 by the US Department of Justice showed that criminals use small-caliber, small-frame, inexpensive handguns in less than three percent of violent crimes.
The earliest law prohibiting inexpensive handguns was enacted in Tennessee, in the form of the "Army and Navy Law," passed in 1879, shortly after the 14th amendment and Civil Rights Act of 1875; previous laws invalidated by the constitutional amendment had stated that black freedmen could not own or carry any manner of firearm. The Army and Navy Law prohibited the sale of "belt or pocket pistols, or revolvers, or any other kind of pistols, except army or navy pistols," which were prohibitively expensive for black freedmen and poor whites to purchase. These were large pistols in .36 caliber ("navy") or .44 caliber ("army"), and were the military issue cap and ball black-powder revolvers used during the Civil War by both Union and Confederate ground troops. The effect of the law was to restrict handgun possession to the upper economic classes.
The next major attempt to regulate inexpensive firearms was the Gun Control Act of 1968, which used the "sporting purposes" test and a points system to exclude many small, inexpensive handguns which had been imported from European makers such as Röhm (RG). The act also had the effect of banning the import of high quality pocket pistols such as the Browning 1910 and the Walther PPK, which were very popular among police officers as backup guns, since police use was not a "sporting purpose" and the backup guns failed the points system on basis of size.
The Gun Control Act had other consequences. The original Glock models imported from Austria, and later adopted by many U.S. police departments, had to be equipped with fragile adjustable sights to gain enough points to be imported as "target pistols"; these were replaced by Glock in the U.S. with the original rugged fixed sight, thus creating the original unimportable configuration desired for police service use. All compact models have "target grips" in the form of finger grooves molded into the plastic, and, until it was produced domestically, Glock's .380 ACP model was not available for import to the US due to its inability to make the required number of points for import.
Most manufacturers in the US were not directly impacted by the Gun Control Act, as they were not subject to the import restrictions, and for the most part they did not manufacture compact, inexpensive handguns that competed with the banned imports. However, demand for quality compact handguns or police service pistols beyond the capacity of domestic manufacture led either to domestic manufacture of guns banned from import (Interarms began making the Walther PPK) or to establishment of U.S. factories by foreign makers such as Beretta.
The demand for inexpensive handguns still existed and a number of new companies were formed to fill that gap. In an effort to cut costs, many of these guns were made with cast zinc components, rather than the more typical machined or cast steel. As a result, legislation against "junk guns" subsequently targeted the zinc frames used in construction by specifying a melting point; however, this backfired when police departments began adopting polymer framed guns such as those made by every major firearms manufacturer (with the exception of Colt), which will burn at temperatures much lower than the commonly specified 800 °F. Legislators then changed the definitions to target size (barrel lengths under 3 inches), materials (such as zinc) or low-cost manufacturing techniques (e.g., density requirements that specifically ban inexpensive powder cast metals), Some of these legal restrictions are based on product liability law; a gun should not discharge when dropped. Others, such as requiring loaded chamber indicators, are controversial.
Law enforcement is also specifically exempted from these bans and regulations.
In Canada, the 1995 Firearms Act (known as Bill C-68 before passage) classified handguns with a calibre of .25 or .32, or having a barrel length of 105 mm or shorter, as "prohibited" weapons. This provision (now included in Section 84 of the Criminal Code of Canada) appears to have been specifically aimed at "Saturday night specials". Exceptions are made for target pistols in these calibres used in international shooting competitions.
In his book Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out, civil rights attorney and gun scholar Don Kates found racial overtones in the focus on the Saturday night special ("niggertown Saturday night special"). Gun control advocate Robert Sherrill claimed: "The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed not to control guns but to control blacks."
The earliest known use of the term "Saturday night special" in print is in the August 17, 1968 issue of The New York Times. In a front-page article titled Handgun Imports Held Up by U.S, author Fred Graham wrote, "... cheap, small-caliber 'Saturday night specials' that are a favorite of holdup men..."
U.S. Senator Birch Bayh, in 1971 hearings on amending the Gun Control Act, indicated that the term "Saturday night special" originated in Detroit, Michigan.
M.A. (Merle Avery) Gill's Underworld Slang, a dictionary published in 1929, includes an entry called "Saturday night pistol" with this simple definition: ".25 automatic."
Legal definition of a "junk gun" usually restricts the materials that can be used in the manufacture of said gun, targeting zinc castings, low melting points (usually 800 degrees Fahrenheit), powder metallurgy, and other low-cost manufacturing techniques. As nearly all guns made this way are chambered for low-pressure cartridges, such as .22 Long Rifle and .25 ACP, these techniques provide sufficient strength and desirable weight and cost savings. The low-strength materials and cheap construction result in poor durability and marginal accuracy at longer ranges, but as most of these guns are designed for use in self-defense, accuracy and durability are not primary design goals. Most guns targeted by the "junk gun" bans are made by a group of current or former manufacturers in the Los Angeles area, such as Bryco Arms, Jimenez Arms, Jennings Firearms, Raven Arms, and Phoenix Arms, collectively known as the "Ring of Fire".
The term "Saturday night special" is an informal term that describes an inexpensive gun of perceived lesser quality (typically due to poor workmanship or use of inexpensive metals such as pot metal) or, for reasons relating to gun politics, to imply easy availability to those who are legally prevented from owning firearms, such as convicted criminals and minors. The term is used to allude that the only reason for the manufacture of such a gun is for use in crime; in fact, studies show that criminals prefer high-quality guns, in the largest caliber they can easily conceal. (Guns Used in Crime: Firearms, Crime, and Criminal Justice—Selected Findings July 1995, NCJ-148201).
A 1985 study of 1,800 incarcerated felons showed that criminals prefer revolvers and other non-semi-automatic firearms over semi-automatic firearms. In a failed attempt at assassinating then-US President Ronald Reagan, a Saturday-night special was employed by John Hinkley, Jr., a 22 caliber Röhm RG-14. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a change in preferences towards semi-automatic pistols occurred in the early 1990s, coinciding with the arrival of crack cocaine and rise of violent youth gangs.
Nonetheless, three of the top ten types of guns involved in crime (as represented by police trace requests ) in the U.S. are widely considered to be Saturday night specials; as reported by the ATF in 1993, these included the Raven Arms .25 caliber, Davis P-380 .380 caliber, and Lorcin L 380 .380 caliber. However, the same study showed the most common firearm used in homicides was a large caliber revolver, and no revolvers of any kind appear on the top ten list of traced firearms.
Despite the low-cost manufacture of "Saturday night specials", prolific gun critic Robert Sherrill admitted he found no instance where a user was killed or seriously injured by failure of a Saturday night special. Firearms sold in most countries are required to pass certain safety tests, particularly a proof test consisting of firing a special high pressure round (proof load) which far exceeds the European C.I.P. or U.S. SAAMI pressure maximum for the round (see internal ballistics).