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Maryland's 1990 "Saturday Night Special" Ban Reduced Gun Homicides in the State, Study Shows


The Maryland law banning "Saturday night special" handguns was associated with a 9 percent decrease in firearm homicides in the state between 1990 and 1998, according to a new study from the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The study was published in the March 2002 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology (Vol. 155, No. 5:406-412) and is the first to measure the law's effect on homicide rates.

The term "Saturday night special" refers to relatively low-quality, concealable handguns that are commonly used in crime. The Maryland law banning Saturday night specials was passed in May 1988 during a period of skyrocketing gun homicide rates in Maryland and surrounding states. It survived a well-funded campaign aimed at overturning the law via referendum later that year. Possibly as a result of these events, the study found that handgun sales were 34 percent higher than expected in the two years prior to the law going into effect in 1990.

A prior study by the same researchers found evidence that Maryland's ban made Saturday night specials less available to criminals in Baltimore. The new study examined the effects of the law on handgun sales prior to the law and homicide rates following the law's implementation.

Homicides did not decline immediately following the ban. However, the researchers found that--based on a model that incorporated historical patterns and homicide trends in Maryland and neighboring states--the rate of gun homicides was 9 percent lower during the post-law period than would have been expected had the law not gone into effect. The law was not associated with a change in homicides committed with other types of weapons. 

Dr. Daniel Webster, the lead author of the study and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said, "The study results suggest that the law did what it was intended to do:  save lives." Dr. Webster explained that the findings translate into an average of 40 lives saved per year between 1990 and 1998. 

Jon Vernick, co-author of the study and also co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, explains, "This is the first comprehensive evaluation of a law banning Saturday night specials in one state." But he cautions, "It is important to remember that our findings may not be generalizable to other states or other periods of time."

Although not its primary focus, the study also showed preliminary evidence that another law, the 1996 Maryland Gun Safety Act, was associated with a modest reduction in gun homicides. The 1996 law limited handgun sales to one per-person, per-month and mandated background checks for handgun sales by private individuals. Because this finding is based on only two full years of post-law data, the authors highlight the need for further research on the effects of the 1996 law.

The article, "Effects of Maryland's Law Banning Saturday Night Special Handguns on Homicides," was authored by Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, and Lisa M. Hepburn. 

Reprints of the article are available through Oxford University Press (1-800-852-7323 or or through the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research (410-614-3243).

THE JOHNS HOPKINS CENTER FOR INJURY RESEARCH AND POLICY aims to use a public health approach to understand injuries and reduce their occurrence, severity, and consequence.

THE JOHNS HOPKINS CENTER FOR GUN POLICY AND RESEARCH is a non-partisan research center dedicated to preventing gun-related injuries and deaths through the application of a public health perspective to the issue of gun violence prevention.