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Small California City Wants to Ban Saturday Night Specials

November 23, 1995

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. (AP) _ This small city, known for its abundance of movie stars and gay activists, is the unlikely site of America’s newest battle over gun control.

City council members are expected to vote unanimously next month to ban sales of Saturday night specials, a nickname for cheap, unreliable, low-caliber handguns favored by criminals. That would make West Hollywood the first city in America to ban the guns. Others, including Santa Monica and Los Angeles, are considering a prohibition, too.

Firearm lobbyists say there is no such thing as a ``Saturday night special.″

``I’ve been in the gun business for over 20 years and it’s a wonderful media term that is absolutely useless,″ said Scott Ehredt, whose company owns six of the largest gun stores in Southern California. ``I’ve heard a million people try to define it, but it’s always by someone who knows nothing about guns.″

Well, not exactly. Five states prohibit sales of Saturday night specials, a weapon they define by the quality of the metal and lack of safety features.

Five Los Angeles-area manufacturers produce 80 percent of the Saturday night specials sold in the United States, according to the Justice Department.

In 1968, Congress banned their import, using a list of criteria including minimum barrel length and the presence or absence of safety devices designed to prevent accidental firings. But every federal effort to ban the weapons domestically has failed, mainly because of the lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association.

In the last decade, the war against Saturday night specials was overshadowed by bitter congressional battles to gain passage of the 1993 Brady bill, which established a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases, and the 1994 ban on assault weapons.

With both acts in place, there is renewed interest in outlawing inexpensive handguns. Members of Congress are again considering legislation, states such as New Jersey are studying the issue and an anti-violence policy committee established by California Attorney General Dan Lungren recently recommended banning the guns.

But few efforts have been as vocal as West Hollywood’s, a decidedly liberal city of 37,000 sandwiched between Beverly Hills and Hollywood that incorporated in 1984, largely on the issues of gay rights and rent control.

``We are a tiny city in the sea of Los Angeles,″ said council member Paul Koretz, a longtime gun-control advocate. ``Random violence has escalated to such a ridiculous point in the Los Angeles area, we felt we had to deal with it.″

Last month, West Hollywood’s five-member council unanimously endorsed the ban. A city ordinance is expected to be written by early December. Mike Jenkins, a private lawyer under contract with West Hollywood, is studying state bans passed by Maryland, Minnesota, South Carolina, Hawaii and Illinois.

A possible sticking point is the California Legislature’s broad powers over gun control, which pre-empt local laws.

Though California has banned assault weapons, a 1982 court decision that overturned a San Francisco law forbidding handguns is still considered the landmark test of local vs. state authority. But Jenkins and others believe California law is sufficiently vague on the issue of handgun sales.

In a 275-page report published in August, Lungren’s Policy Council on Violence Prevention recommended banning Saturday night specials. Last year, however, Lungren issued a legal opinion that regulating firearms sales is beyond the reach of local governments.

Jenkins says Lungren is wrong. The law that Jenkins is drafting targets handguns ``made of a lower grade of metal. We may be using the 800 or 1,000-degree melting point″ standard of the other state bans that have withstood legal challenge.

This summer, a bill that would have outlawed the manufacture and sale of cheap handguns died in a state Assembly committee on a 4-to-4 vote, split on party lines. It was the latest in a series of similar bills that met similar defeats.

However, recent polls show that Californians want handgun controls. In one private survey, 78 percent of residents and 76 percent of gun owners favored prohibiting Saturday night specials.

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