The Saturday Night Special

Robert Sherrill's "The Saturday Night Special"

Robert Sherrill’s The Saturday Night Special

I just dusted off an entertaining screed from 1973 written by former Washington Post reporter Robert Sherrill. Although you can gather it from his credential as a Posty, the prodigious title of the book better signals his views on the “so-called” right to keep and bear arms. To wit: The Saturday Night Special: And Other Guns With Which Americans Won The West, Protected Bootleg Franchises, Slew Wildlife, Robbed Countless Banks, Shot Husbands Purposely And By Mistake And Killed Presidents – Together With The Debate Over Continuing Same.  Absent from Sherrill’s list is any suggestion of the utility of firearms for legitimate self-defense.

The book is a vivid reflection of the times, urging confidently the states’ rights view of the Second Amendment that today not a single member of the United States Supreme Court attempts to prop up. But enough nostalgia.

The reason I retrieved Sherrill’s Saturday Night Special from the back of a high shelf was that he offers a lively argument that the 1968 Gun Control Act was mostly about controlling Negroes and not much about controlling guns. That account was the primary reason I bought the many book years ago, and I confess I only just now read it cover to cover. Some of it is quite extraordinary.

Once you cut through the vitriol, the striking thing is Sherrill’s clearheaded critique of several issues that are central to the current gun control debate.  Indeed, on several key points Sherrill is in basic agreement with claims that I have developed in detail in my scholarship and summarized in previous posts to this blog.

I have argued extensively that marginal supply controls are fruitless and sweeping supply controls will both fail and make things worse because we already have 300 million guns. In 1973, Sherrill, operating on the estimate of perhaps 200 million guns, basically acknowledged the same thing. He illustrates the point through a comparison.  First he notes the episode in 1972 where following the murder of Bermuda’s Governor, police confiscated the island’s 800 registered handguns. Then, for contrast, he offers Governor Pat Brown’s now 40 year old analysis of the “gargantuan task of trying to seize 10 million handguns or making law violators of 10 million people that now possess them.”

Brown’s answer, more of a platitude really, exhibited the kind of glib governmental hubris that is in vast supply in the current debate. “The only answer I can give you” said Brown, “is that you have to begin someplace… I feel we should take the general position that handguns should be barred except by police officials and other authorized people, and then try to find out how to seize them in the days ahead.”   This sounds pretty much like the dubious prescription for shrinking the supply of “assault weapons” in Dianne Feinstein’s initial salvo.

The 1970s were a time when anti-gun folks were far more open about the theory and practical demands of their agenda.  They felt no compulsion to declare wincingly how much they respect the Second Amendment.  Unlike his modern counterparts, Sherrill exhibits open disdain for guns and gun culture.  But more remarkably he is clear-eyed about the evident practical boundaries on such proposals. His response to Pat Brown was, “lots of luck.”

Then, in an analysis that is very similar to my detailed description of the implications of defiance to supply controls internationally, Sherrill recounts the martial law gun control measures enacted by Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines.   All private firearms had to be surrendered, anyone in possession of an unauthorized gun faced 10 to 15 years imprisonment and anyone who committed a violent crime with a gun faced a firing squad. Under these pressures, Filipinos still only turned in about half of the estimated civilian gun stock. And the half that remained were now officially black-market guns, circulating among the least law-abiding segment of the community. Hard to see how that was a good thing, and Sherrill was honest in recognizing the problem.

Sherrill’s next assessment puts our recent dispute about assault weapons and its underlying “bad gun formula” in high relief.  In 1973, the number one bad gun was the so-called “Saturday Night Special.” Remember that one?  Just like today’s “assault weapon,” it was an elastic category with no real boundaries. The label could capture small guns, small caliber guns, cheap guns, and if you really want to get to the point, guns likely to be owned by poor people, and more so black people.

On the status of the Saturday Night Special, Sherrill is a bit schizophrenic. He wants to do something, but he is unwilling to drink the “bad gun” kool-aid of the type that today has people fulminating about pistol grips, ten round magazines and barrel shrouds (this later accoutrement a key House member famously could not even describe let alone explain its evil function).

Sherrill’s work on this point is worth quoting because it so closely tracks what many of us have said about the technically absurd distinctions advanced to support Sen. Feinstein’s recently proposed bad gun classifications. Here is Sherrill:

Gun control advocates have been manipulated into playing the gun status game, and that is a game in which they are guaranteed to make fools of themselves, for their simply is no way to equate quality or price or size or caliber with anything of social import .  …. The “nice” .22s of the highest price in the longest barrel manufactured by elite U.S. gun companies send forth bullets that operate in exactly the same fashion. Did the reformers think there was something especially evil in the combination of small size and small price? … Did they feel that the bigger calibers, for some mysterious reason were safer or, for some even more mysterious reason, more civilized? … All guns are terrible, no doubt, but one kind no more than the others. And if there is virtue in any gun, no gun is completely without it.

Wow!  That is what I wrote next in the margin next to this passage.  Because if you substitute assault rifles versus shotguns or AR 15’s versus Mini 14’s in the right spots, what Sherrill says here is basically the argument I advanced in my February testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

There I highlighted the U.S. Army Combat Shotgun report that showed how the ubiquitous shotgun with standard buckshot loads is, within practical ranges, superior in multi-projectile capability, hit probability and lethality to anything that would be banned under the proposed assault weapons legislation.

This, as I explained to the Committee, made Feinstein’s categories simply incoherent and rendered the proposed legislation constitutionally unsustainable. I recently lost an inquisitive reporter on the technical details, but reconnected with him on the analogy that Feinstein’s classifications were the equivalent of banning red cars on the theory that they are the fast and dangerous ones.

Unlike some of the Senators of the Judiciary Committee, Sherrill was (what to say here?) thoughtful enough, diligent enough, candid enough, about the details to acknowledge how certain objectively measurable variables provide hard policy limits in what is otherwise a whirlwind of analysis.  He was unwilling to cloud things further through specious assertions about things that serious people should agree on simply as a matter of physics.

So what does it say about our policy-making that we recently spent so much time and energy debating a sweeping gun ban proposal that was the analytical equivalent of what you would get from turning over regulation of the internet to your grandmother, who thinks that hitting the wrong button on the keyboard will make the house will blow up.  That’s basically what we got when the Democrats offered up Senator Feinstein as the authority on firearms policy and she started talking about “spray firing from the hip,” but went all doe-eyed when confronted with the U.S. Army Report showing that the principle evil characteristic she said needed banning were best exhibited by a class of ubiquitous firearms that were included by the hundreds on her list of “good guns.”

The whole thing is so discouraging that it has me rethinking one of my long held criticisms of our political system. For two decades my students have heard me beat the dead horse of the non-delegation doctrine, criticizing nondemocratic lawmaking under the guise of “regulation” by countless, nameless, non-elected bureaucrats—teaming minions assigned to “flesh out the details” of laws that congress has supposedly laid the structure for.  I am fond of the illustration of the “law” versus the “regulations” administered under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act.  The former is a few thin pages of statute.  The latter is several thick volumes of EPA edicts in the Code of Federal Regulations, a word count ratio I eyeball at about 50,000 to 1.

But here is the thing.  When courts assess challenges to the regulators’ work product, they ask essentially whether the rules make sense in light of the data, an abundance of which is submitted by affected parties, and weighed in serious fashion.  The rule-makers go to great pains to develop regulations that match up with the data and, usually within the limits of reality, the underlying problem.  Someone is always unhappy about the results.  But the incentives for the faceless rule-makers weigh against unleashing something that on objective analysis is just nonsense. You have to be elected to get away with that.

Nicholas J. Johnson is Professor of Law, Fordham University School of Law is the author of Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms. He is the lead editor of Firearms Law and the Second Amendment: Cases and Materials (Aspen Press, 2012).

About the Author

Comments

  1. says

    There is a very basic obstacle to realizing the fantasy of gun control. Gun control advocates have never been able to proceed beyond the neanderthal resort to force; to bans and prohibitions enforced by armed agents. This scenario is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons.

    First, maintaining any type of proscription against popular desires is unstable and ultimately unsustainable, as illustrated by prohibition, miscegenation laws, the futile war on drugs, etc. Bans and prohibitions are inherently endothermic, sucking resources and resolve from the body politic, and fertilizing the seeds of corruption.

    Second, there is no clear, or even unclear boundary between invocations of domestic force for the public good, and unvarnished tyranny. This is not to say there is no distinction to be made; prohibitions on murder and rape are fine subjects for legislation and societal support. But not all homicide is murder and not all sex is rape. Society recognizes that the legitimate use of force is necessarily confined to the extraordinary, the outrageous and the depraved. When the accepted arenas for the use of public force expand to serve parochial interests, ideologies and emotional fads, tyranny intrudes.

    Third, a “firearm” is not some technological dead end that begat violence among Utopian innocents. A firearm is a rather straightforward device that uses chemical energy to propel a projectile along a determined path, and which may result in trauma. The desire to cause trauma proceeded the invention of firearms by a few dozen millennia, and firearms will likely be be superseded by some new new technology in the future . Ingenuity, for better or worse, will intervene to keep the supply of devices capable of producing trauma well ahead of the sisyphean project of legislatively controlling them. This is the lesson of 3-D printed guns, or even less advanced technologies such as zip guns. The one eventuality that our political class never seems to consider is that the people that they seek to control with bans and mandates, coercion and restraint are smarter than the politicians. It doesn’t seem to occur to Senators Schumer and Feinstein that Eric Harris and James Holmes, nutty and evil as they were and are, are smarter and more resourceful than members of the United states Congress. If a psychopath wants to kill strangers for depraved motives, they are not going to be dissuaded by the grandstanding naivete of ideology-addled politicians.

    Fourth, producing guns is not rocket science. Fine handguns are made in Italy, Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Russia, England, China, Germany, Israel, etc. Bans and proscriptions are the incubators of black markets and illicit trade.

    Fifth a healthy and functioning society must rely on the inherent decency and civilized behavior of its citizens in order to survive. Invocations of force can only temporize social order as a last resort. You cannot force a society to be virtuous, nor can you neutralize evil and malign intent by taking away scary looking inanimate objects.

  2. Andy Freeman says

    I can’t find the reference now, but I remember seeing a fairly convincing argument showing that the term “Saturday Night Special” came from a Reconstruction-era campaign to disarm freed slaves.
    As you recall, some of the earliest gun control laws in the US were in the south after the civil war. These laws banned pistols except for those models which, by some strange coincidence, were the ones that returning soldiers were likely to have.
    IIRC, one of the slogans used to promote these was “Those guns aren’t good for anything except N-town on Saturday Night”.
    That slogan shows some chutzpah – those guns were used against raiding Klansman, said use being one of the big motivations for disarming freed slaves, and some of the raids occurred on Saturday night.

    • steveH says

      You might be thinking of Cramer’s “The Racist Roots of Gun Control”, or possibly
      The Second Amendment: Towards an Afro-Americanist reconsideration by Robert J Cottrol and Raymond T. Diamond (1991). Those are the first to come to my mind, but would hardly be the only work on the subject.

  3. Lulu says

    In the dark days of the 1970s, I was assigned Sherrill’s book as part of a political science course. I held onto it for years and reread it from time to time because it was a lively exposition of a subject I knew little about. To his credit, Sherrill was honest enough to lay out facts along with his own adamantine opinions in a style I can only call weaponized humor. Perhaps his doubts about the efficacy of gun laws gave me scope to begin entertaining doubts about the progressive project. Kudos, Robert Sherrill, an honest liberal.

  4. BatChainPuller says

    You churned a lot of great words and concepts but you forgot; guns are icky and people that own them are poopie heads. That’s all one really needs to know about the “debate”.

  5. says

    Gun control is people control. It is a necessary precondition for tyranny. A free people, able and willing to use the political power that comes from the barrel of a gun to defend their rights and freedoms, can never be enslaved. The most you can do is kill them. Would-be tyrants know this, and so they work each day to deceive the people into giving up our power. The foolish among us fall for it. The wise and the wary do not. There you have the “gun control debate” in a nutshell.

  6. murphaticlaw says

    A local museums C.S.I. exhibit I am familiar with describes Saturday Night Specials as cheap guns bought with money from a Monday to Friday job so the poor could rob the rich on the weekend.. My question, if they were thieves, why wouldn’t they just steal the guns instead of working for the money to buy them? Or just steal money? Also why are the motives of the poverty stricken not as valid as ‘middle class’ or wealthy gun gun buyers. Because the poor are never victimized by violent crime?
    Apparently that was just how the exhibit was designed, nobody knows why.

    • says

      The origins of the term are curious. The term “Niggertown Saturday Night” to describe a wild, perhaps even violent party ceases to appear in print by the 1950s. The term “Saturday Night Special” appears in print starting in 1968. Since the term “Saturday Night Special” refers to inexpensive handguns commonly used by criminals in inner cities, it is no great leap to think that SNS is derived from NSN.

  7. PubliusII says

    What’s interesting in your account of Sherrill’s book is the honesty it displays. (I haven’t read the book itself, but will get a copy.) Here’s a left/liberal fully against guns, but who hasn’t lost a sense of truth, even where it hurts his cause.

    As you say, “Wow!” That kind of leftie/liberal either no longer exists or has been thoroughly silenced. And Sherrill himself appears to be effectively rusticated (although in part this may be due to age) — see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Sherrill

  8. tom swift says

    “The rule-makers go to great pains to develop regulations that match up with the data”

    Well, it’s not clear that one can run too far with that.

    Industry trade groups – ASTM (American Soc. for Testing and Materials), SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers), AISI (American Iron & Steel Institute), etc, and foreign equivalents – can certainly be trusted to do that, but those are voluntary standards, not regulations. They are in nearly universal use because they are useful, not because they are mandated. Some government organizations (National Bureau of Standards, now Nat. Institute of Standards & Time) do the same. Should such a group promulgate nonsense standards, they’ll be ignored, and, since they’re not actual regulations, they CAN be ignored.

    This does not imply that regulatory bureaus are similarly competent, perhaps because the Darwinian angle is removed. Crap regulations are still regulations, no matter how ill-conceived, mistaken, or politically inspired they may be. A good example is the BATF’s obsession with “sporting use” which has regulated gun imports for over forty years. “Sporting use” has never been shown to enhance the public safety, or indeed to have any real Constitutional basis, as the 2nd Amendment (which, post-Heller, the government is supposed to take seriusly) is not about sports.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>