IF YOU HAVE ever wondered just what is so "special" about the handguns called Saturday Night Specials, there is an important distinction that has just been underscored by Maryland's highest court: They're good for nothing -- except crimes, woundings and killings -- and they aren't even all that good for these singularly unsporting activities. What Saturday Night Specials are -- in every sense -- is cheap. They are snub-nosed handguns (all the better to hide them) made of lightweight materials and noted for their poor accuracy. The clientele for these "snubbies," as they are also known, consists chiefly of lawbreakers and people who purchase the things in the misguided belief that they might be good for self-defense.

So why are these nasty little killers manufactured and sold? That's precisely what the Maryland Court of Appeals considered before issuing a unanimous finding that makers and sellers of these particular handguns can be held liable for injuries inflicted by the guns. The court ruled that "the manufacturer or marketer of a Saturday Night Special knows or ought to know that he is making or selling a product principally to be used in criminal activity."

Nothing in this ruling directly stops the sales of snubbies -- except perhaps some hideously tardy recognition by makers and sellers that what they're peddling is sure to maim and kill. That's probable consequence, not some loose interpretation of what some other legitimate product might do under certain circumstances. The ruling doesn't even include other handguns. The Saturday Night Specials are singled out because, as the court said, they are "virtually useless for the legitimate purposes of law enforcement, sport and protection of persons, property and business."

This shouldn't have to be the subject of a court ruling; we prefer another approach that would eliminate any arguments about possible liabilty. Ban Saturday Night Specials outright -- from disassembled parts to finished products. They have no place in this country, regardless of what people may think about conditions on ownership of other firearms. If there is ever to be any broad agreement on a sane approach to the national arsenal of killer weapons, it could begin with a fundamental objective: to make it more difficult for criminals to buy concealable firearms, but at the same time to protect the legitimate rifle or shotgun owner and preserve public safety for all law-abiding citizens. Is that too tough a quest?