The NRA has an excellent article on the racist origins of the terms “Saturday night specials” and “junk guns,” and gun control as a whole. In short, these terms were used to describe guns the racist law makers saw as being used by African Americans to commit crimes on Saturday nights, after drinking.
An excerpt from the NRA’s article which discusses the history of Saturday Night Specials:
To prevent Blacks from arming themselves, southern states enacted the Black Codes, which “fixed the black population in serfdom, denying all political rights, excluding them from virtually any chance at economic or social advancement — and, of course, forbidding them to own arms.” (Don B. Kates, Jr., “Toward a History of Handgun Prohibition in the United States,” Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out, Don B. Kates, Jr., Ed., North River Press, Inc, 1979.)
After ratification of the 14th Amendment (1868) and enactment of the Civil Rights Act (1875), several states responded by passing laws which on their face were race-neutral, but which in effect were not. Attorney Robert Dowlut observed, “It does not matter that a law on its face applies to all. A law will be deemed unconstitutional if the ‘the reality is that the law’s impact falls on the minority.’” (”Bearing Arms in State Bills of Rights, Judicial Interpretation, and Public Housing,” St. Thomas Law Review, Vol. 5, Fall 1992.)
Among these laws, the forerunners of so-called [junk gun] legislation, was Tennessee’s “Army and Navy” law (1879), which prohibited the sale of any “belt or pocket pistols, or revolvers, or any other kind of pistols, except army or navy pistol” models, among the most expensive, and largest, handguns of the day. (Such as the Colt Model 1960 Army, Model 1851 Navy, and Model 1861 Navy percussion cap revolvers, or Model 1873 Single-Action Army revolver.) The law thus prohibited small two-shot derringers and low-caliber rimfire revolvers, the handguns that most Blacks could afford.
In 1911, New York passed the Sullivan Law, which to this day requires a person to obtain a license, issued at the discretion of police officials, to possess a handgun. The law was aimed at preventing handgun ownership by Italians and Irish immigrants of the period, then considered untrustworthy by New York legislators and police chiefs with different bloodlines. The National Firearms Act (1934), as originally proposed, would have required registration of handguns.
It is truly sad for me to see civil rights leaders like Jessie Jackson adopting the very gun control tactics that white supremacists used for so long. Equally sad is the attempt by legislators to deny the lower income members of society the ability to purchase an affordable gun for self defense, especially when they may be the members of society who live in the most violent neighborhoods and need the ability to defend themselves the most.