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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.]
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 subject.
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 this out.
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 enacted.
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 right direction.
"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 intent.
They do seem to believe that gun bans have no real cost.
"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 said.
"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 accidental deaths.
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 involving guns.
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 resistance.
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 gun.
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 aluminum.
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 guns.
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 the standard.
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 three inches.
Banning short-barreled guns wouldn't stop crooks from sawing off the barrels of longer guns.
Transmitted: 3/7/96 1:42 AM (aaafoqyp)