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by Eli Kintisch TNR January 15, 2003

Recently I visited Potomac Arms,
a gun shop on the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia. Making my way
past the samurai swords and shotguns, I found the 17-inch Anzio
Ironworks .50-caliber “take-down” rifle–named because it can be
disassembled in less than 25 seconds–on display. Another brand of
.50-caliber, an ArmaLite, was available in the back, a clerk told me.
Buying either gun would not be difficult: Under the Brady Bill, I’d
need to show identification, after which my name would be run through a
computer to check my criminal and immigration status. With a clean
record, I could pay and take the gun with me– with no permanent state
or federal record of the sale required.

Many types of firearms can be purchased
that easily in the United States. Few of them, however, would be as
dangerous in the hands of terrorists. A .50-caliber sniper rifle,
experts say, would be more than capable of shooting down an airliner as
it took off or landed. Indeed, aimed properly, this weapon could be as
effective as a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile, such as the one
used by terrorists in an unsuccessful attack on an Israeli passenger
plane in Kenya in November. But, whereas anti-aircraft missiles are
highly restricted for civilians in the United States and decidedly
difficult to obtain illegally, high-caliber guns like the one I saw in
Alexandria are available at your local gun shop, at gun shows, or even
on the Web. They’re also relatively affordable: Security officials
estimate that a shoulder-launched missile like the one used in Mombasa
would cost up to $5,000 on the black market, with more sophisticated
models going for as much as $10,000. A .50-caliber rifle, by contrast,
sells for as little as $1,250 at Potomac Arms in Alexandria. Incendiary
rounds, which ignite on impact, cost roughly $2 apiece and are also
essentially unregulated.

While a .50-caliber rifle is heavy, and
would need to be positioned in line with a plane’s path, it has the
twin benefits of being accurate from more than a mile away and of doing
a great deal of damage on impact. “Any hunting rifle is dangerous to an
airplane, but a fifty-caliber would be much more effective,” says Ken
Cooper, a firearms expert who trains law enforcement and security
officials in Kingston, New York. Gal Luft, a former lieutenant colonel
in the Israeli army and co-director of the Washington-based Institute
for the Analysis of Global Security, calls the .50-caliber “lethal
against slow-moving planes.” Both experts agree that a plane taking off
would be most vulnerable to the guns.

When I left the gun store, I drove for ten
minutes to a parking lot outside Ronald Reagan Washington National
Airport with a clear line of sight to a dozen or so planes waiting at
the terminal. I watched a plane scarcely more than 500 feet away from
me take off and pass right overhead, exposing the undersides of its
giant wings, where the fuel is stored, for several seconds. Cooper
notes that, since .50-caliber rifles with ammo clips are semiautomatic,
“the fifty can continuously fire and get off a large number of shots
… even at an airplane going over a hundred miles per hour.” Unlike a
terrorist, I, of course, hadn’t bought a .50-caliber rifle at the store
a few miles away.

sniper rifles are a relatively new weapon, dating back to the 1980s. In
World War II, the Browning machine gun, still popular today, fired
.50-caliber bullets at a high rate of speed but with little accuracy.
Equipped with telescopic sight, the modern .50-caliber rifle shoots
bullets, one at a time, with equal power and vastly higher accuracy. Up
to five feet long and weighing between 30 and 60 pounds, the gun fires
six-inch-long, half-inch-wide bullets that can rip through a 3.5-inch
manhole from 200 yards away. In addition to incendiary bullets,
armor-piercing rounds are commercially available. During the Gulf war,
American soldiers used these to penetrate Iraqi armor from as far as a
half-mile away, doing so much long-range damage against one armored
personnel carrier that Iraqi troops in the vicinity immediately
surrendered. Fifty-caliber rounds can penetrate armored limousines,
airport fuel tanks, and, presumably, the presidential helicopter,
Marine One. “This threat is not a gun-control issue but a national
security issue,” writes the Washington-based Violence Policy Center
(VPC) in a soon-to-be-released study on airport security and the
.50-caliber rifle.

The military acknowledges the gun’s
specific threat to planes. As pointed out in the VPC report, several
U.S. Army manuals warn against the risk of small-arms fire–such as
that from a .50-caliber gun–against low-flying aircraft, citing heavy
losses from ground fire in Korea and Vietnam. And experts say
airliners’ large sizes means they would be easier for snipers to hit
and destroy than smaller, fast-flying planes. Airplanes waiting on the
runway are also vulnerable. A 1995 report done for the Air Force by the
Rand Corporation found that .50-caliber guns give “light forces a
portable and quite deadly option against parked aircraft.” In the
November 2001 issue of Airman, the Air Force’s official magazine, an
article on anti-sniper efforts described planes parked on a fully
protected U.S. airbase to be as vulnerable as “ducks on a pond” because
.50-caliber guns could shoot from beyond most airbase perimeters.

Manufacturers, eager for military
contracts, have actually used the gun’s effectiveness against aircraft
as a selling point. Tennessee-based Barrett Firearms Manufacturing,
whose 82A1 model is popular with armies around the world, as well as
with some enthusiasts, has claimed in marketing material meant for the
military that the guns are “capable of destroying multimillion-dollar
aircraft with a single hit delivered to a vital area.” In the 1999
federal trial of six men accused of a 1997 assassination attempt on
Fidel Castro, Ronnie Barrett, the designer of the .50-caliber rifle and
president of Barrett Firearms, testified to his gun’s usefulness
against commercial planes as they flew toward a sniper’s nest. Asked
what he deemed the difficulty of hitting a landing airplane with a
.50-caliber rifle, he replied, “Just like bird-hunting.”

Right now, .50-caliber guns are subject to the same lax federal regulations
as hunting shotguns or smaller-target rifles. In most states, the
purchaser needs only to have a driver’s license, be at least 18 years
old, and have a clean criminal and immigration record. Fifty-caliber
ammunition, like any other kind of ammo for legal guns, is also widely
available: Congress has put limits on armor-penetrating ammunition for
handguns, but no limits exist for any but the most lethal .50-caliber
ammo. A number of Internet sites offer incendiary and armor-piercing
bullets through the mail, and a 1999 General Accounting Office
investigation found dealers around the country who would sell the
ammunition over the telephone, even to buyers who asked about the
bullets’ effectiveness against ballistic glass or armored limos.

Part of the reason is that, while
.50-caliber rifles were developed more than 15 years ago, their use has
been limited to a small cadre of shooting enthusiasts who use the gun
for long-distance target shooting or hunting. But the guns are gaining
in popularity. Accurate numbers of the guns manufactured in the United
States are hard to come by, but Forbes magazine says two dozen
manufacturers now make the weapon, and gun magazines have in recent
years reported on the burgeoning area of sales to military, police, and
civilian markets.

In 1999, after VPC released a report on
the gun’s increasing popularity, Congress examined the issue for the
first time. Since that year, California Democratic Representative Henry
Waxman and a handful of other Hill liberals have held hearings and
introduced legislation on the guns, calling for .50-caliber rifles to
be regulated under the National Firearms Act. That law requires
citizens to pay a licensing tax, undergo an extensive check, and wait
90 days to buy machine guns and other kinds of military weapons. This
legislation never even received a committee hearing in the
Republican-controlled House.

The National Rifle Association’s (NRA)
arguments against restricting these guns are less than persuasive.
“They’re used for target shooting,” said Chuck Michel, attorney for the
California Rifle and Pistol Association, Inc. (CRPA),
the NRA’s official state association in California. The NRA also
claimed, in an August 28, 2001, fact sheet, that “.50 caliber rifles
are not used in crimes,” ignoring cases of use by IRA snipers, drug
runners, and cult members. In addition, they argued that the cost and
size of these weapons make them unappealing for ordinary buyers,
despite the gun’s growing popularity among, well, ordinary individual
buyers. “[T]hey’re way too expensive and cumbersome for run-of-the-mill
lowlifes,” the fact sheet said. Despite the flimsiness of its
arguments, the NRA has successfully blocked the regulation of
.50-caliber weapons on the state level. In February 2002, California
Assemblyman Paul Koretz introduced a bill to regulate the weapons as
assault rifles, and, given California’s past success in passing other
gun-control legislation, the measure seemed likely to pass. But the CRPA
joined with an NRA lobbyist, local gun groups, and Barrett himself to
oppose the bill, which died in committee. (One gun-control advocate
suggested that pressure to kill the bill also came from California
Governor Gray Davis, who didn’t want a controversial bill on his desk
as he ran for reelection.) Measures that would tighten regulations on
.50-caliber guns have similarly gone nowhere in the Illinois and New
York legislatures, though the city council in Los Angeles and the
Maryland legislature have successfully controlled or banned .50-caliber

Ultimately, though, state regulation
wouldn’t accomplish much. (A committed terrorist would presumably be
willing to drive across state lines to make his purchase.) And action
on the federal level has thus far been close to nil. A year ago, in a
response to Waxman’s concerns about the powerful gun’s use in
terrorism, the Bush administration implicitly acknowledged the need to
control these weapons. In a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell
sent just over one year ago, Waxman wrote that State Department
officials had told his staff that the administration had halted export
of the weapons overseas, aiming to keep the rifles out of the hands of
foreign terrorists. But, in what Waxman calls a “clear backtrack,”
State said in a subsequent letter to the representative that its action
was not a permanent “change in policy.” That’s too bad. It would have
been nice to think the administration cared more about America’s
security than about the gun lobby.

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