[T]he Saturday Night Special saga illustrates the difficulties of statutorily defining a nebulous style of firearm, particularly when that style of firearm carries with it a range of strong connotations. Disagreement over statutory definitions continues to this day, most notably with respect to firearms classified as “assault weapons.”
Assault weapons have for some time been a lightning rod in gun control debates, and like the Saturday Night Special, these firearms have become a key target for gun control advocates who view them as a uniquely dangerous class of firearm. Also like the Saturday Night Special, defining what exactly constitutes an assault weapon has been the subject of fierce debate that carries important implications.
The 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, defined assault weapons as a “semiautomatic rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable box magazine” and at least two of five listed features including “a folding or telescoping stock,” “a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon,” a threaded barrel or flash suppressor, and more. Like the IRS Factoring Criteria for Saturday Night Specials, however, these criteria resulted in arguably arbitrary classifications, and minor design modifications by manufacturers could render otherwise prohibited weapons permissible.
Furthermore, critics have argued that many of the features that legally render a firearm an assault weapon are “cosmetic” in nature and that there is little meaningful difference between weapons designated as assault weapons and other semi-automatic rifles.
Third, the history of Saturday Night Special regulation illustrates the perils of enacting restrictions focused on a certain type of firearm without a rational articulation of why that type warrants special regulation. The core premise that Saturday Night Specials were more dangerous or lethal than other handguns does not bear much scrutiny.
While they may have been concealable, so were many other more expensive handguns; furthermore, other key characteristics such as their low caliber, cheap construction, and lack of reliability could reasonably be said to make these guns less lethal, not more. As Professor Zimring concluded, “the attack against cheap imported handguns was powerful but pitifully underinclusive. Handguns retailing for under $50 are a major public safety problem—but so are those retailing for over $50.” (p. 166).
Another contemporary assessment from journalist Robert Sherrill, himself a vocal gun control proponent, was even more scathing, predicting that “history will not support the snooty caste-consciousness in gun traffic. All guns are terrible, no doubt, but one kind no more than others” (The Saturday Night Special, p. 321).
Because § 925(d) was never the subject of any high-profile litigation, such criticism of the rationale behind it was largely limited to observers like Zimring and Sherrill rather than the courts. Post-Heller, however, the bar for such a rationale to survive judicial scrutiny appears to be even higher.
While the poor drafting and muddled rationale of § 925(d) might make the provision more questionable today today, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California’s recent decision in Miller v. Bonta raises questions about whether policy-makers can enact blanket restrictions on certain types of commonly-owned guns at all. That decision, which overturned California’s 30-year-old ban on assault weapons, held that governments bear the burden of proving that a type of firearm is sufficiently “uncommon and dangerous” to warrant restriction, before which such firearms are presumptively lawful to own.
The court went on to hold not only that California’s proffered evidence failed to demonstrate that assault weapons were disproportionately used in crime, but that “more importantly, disproportionality is not a constitutional test.” Should Miller become widely-cited precedent, restrictions on a type of weapon predicated on disproportionate use in crime may soon seem as anachronistic as the initial furor over Saturday Night Specials.
— Sam Wolter in The Continuing Relevance of the Saturday Night Special