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50 Caliber Gun Ban in the United States

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Gun control is a hotly debated topic in the world that is facing increasing incidents of random shootings in public places. Gun Control refers to the government limitation of the purchase and ownership of firearms. Whether from assault or self-inflicted injury, the likelihood of death is especially high when a gun is involved. According to criminologists Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins the prevalence of guns is the main reason why the U.S. homicide rate far exceeds those of other comparable Western countries (OSI, 2000). While some people feel that gun control should be exercised in order to prevent the rate of crime in the country, there are others who feel such control would infringe on their individual constitutional rights. Thus we find that there are two sides to the discussion of gun control in general.

The .50 caliber rifle:

The latest focus in the broad realm of gun control is the .50 caliber rifle. The .50-caliber rifle, invented 22 years ago by Ronni Barrett is one of the world’s best combat weapons and widely used among all armies in the world. The large-caliber, high-powered rifle is used by the military and police to shoot at long-range targets, including ones more than a mile away. According to a Senate report a bullet from a .50-caliber rifle, at 1.5 miles, crashes into a target with more energy than a bullet fired at point-blank range from Dirty Harry’s famous .44 Magnum (CBS, 2005). The rifle is used by civilians for firing ranges and for big-game hunting. The rifle is loaded with armor-piercing ammunition that can destroy concrete shelters and lightly armored vehicles.  The best models of .50 caliber rifles are the Barrett M82A1 and the Accuracy International AW50[1].

According to

While critics of the rifle argue that there is no reasonable civilian use for the weapon, they say that it should be banned because it can be used by terrorists to shoot at oil refineries and airplanes, or by snipers against people.  However, this argument is countered by gun rights activists who point out that the weapon has not been used in crimes across the country.

Critical views of .50 caliber rifles by the VPC:

The Violence Policy Center (VPC) released a study entitled “Just like Bird Hunting-The Threat to Civil Aviation from .50-Caliber Sniper Rifles”, which details the threat of military-bred .50-Caliber sniper rifles to aviation and passengers throughout the United States. The 32-page study focuses on the power of the .50 caliber sniper rifle and its ammunition and how it can be dangerous in the context of terrorism and attacks against airports and aircraft. According to this report: the .50-Caliber sniper rifle is capable of firing accurately over thousands of yards and can utilize legally available armor-piercing, incendiary, and explosive ammunition[2].

The U.S. Army’s manual on urban combat states that .50-Caliber sniper rifles are intended for use as anti-materiel weapons, designed to attack bulk fuel tanks and other high-value targets from a distance. Various models at a wide range of prices are available to civilians from an increasing number of gun manufacturers. Their anti-aircraft capabilities are widely advertised even by their leading manufacturers. In a brochure advertising its Model 82A1 .50-Caliber sniper rifle, Tennessee-based Barrett Firearms Manufacturing Inc. states, “The cost-effectiveness of the Model 82A1 cannot be overemphasized when a round of ammunition purchased for less than 10 USD [U.S. dollars] can be used to destroy or disable a modern jet aircraft” [3].

In 1999 court testimony, Barrett Manufacturing head Ronnie Barrett testified as to the .50-Caliber’s ability to destroy aircraft: “If it is coming directly at you, it is almost as easy. Just like bird hunting. But yes, it is more difficult if it is horizontally, or moving from left to right, yes” (CGV, 1999).  The VPC has warned President Bush, Secretary of the Office Of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and countless other state and federal officials charged with keeping Americans safe from terrorist activities of the dangers posed by .50-Caliber sniper rifles (CGV, 1999).

Arguments opposing ban on .50 caliber rifles:

Supports of the .50 caliber rifles say that these rifles have existed since the 1860s. Those that use modern .50 cal. ammunition have existed for a half century. Those that anti-gunners attack now have existed since the 1980s. It is strange that these rifles are targeted so recently. Additionally, supporters of the .50 caliber rifles cite the following facts:

  • .50 caliber rifles are not used in crimes–.50 caliber rifles are too large and heavy to be employed in normal criminal behavior.
  • .50 caliber rifles are also among the most expensive made, confining their purchase to dedicated marksmen and collectors.
  • Most people who own .50 caliber rifles are long-range target shooting experts.
  • .50 caliber rifle ammunition is not new.
  • Mk211 military ammunition is strictly controlled by the U.S. Armed Forces and not available to the general public.

Arguments supporting ban on the .5 caliber rifle:

In contrast, supporters of the ban on .50 caliber rifles say (VPC, 1999):

  • .50 Caliber Sniper Rifles were designed to attack parked or landing aircraft, armored personnel carriers, rail tank cars, bulk fuel storage, and concrete bunkers.
  • .50 Caliber sniper rifles are powerful enough to puncture armored limousines and can be used as tools for assassination.
  • .50 Caliber Sniper Rifles have effective ranges up to 2,000 yards,
  • Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network bought 25 Barrett .50 Caliber sniper rifles in the late 1980s.
  • .50 Caliber ammunition is the largest round available on the civilian market and highly destructive armor-piercing, incendiary, and explosive rounds are easily available.

They hold: “It’s a battlefield weapon. Yet it is sold as freely on the American civilian market as a .22 bolt action rifle.”

Counter –arguments:

According to Guy Smith’s Gun Facts Version 3.3 published in 2003, only 2% of all terrorist activity involves armed attack. Of the “armed attacks”, the most favored weapons used were fully automatic AK-47 rifles. This is because a commercial .50 caliber costs upwards of $6,000 each and that terrorists can buy the favored AK-47s in Pakistan for less than $200.  Moreover, .50 caliber rifles are heavy (20-35 pounds), ammunition is expensive ($5 per each round for military quality), impossible to conceal (typically four feet long), most are single shot (slower to reload than a hunting rifle) and impractical for terrorist activities. This is supported by the following news items:

  • In June 2001, federal agents arrested Keith Glaude when he tried to purchase 60 AK-47 assault rifles and 10 machine guns in Florida. He intended to ship the guns to an Islamic extremist group in his native Trinidad[4] (Plaster, 1999).
  • In Red House, VA, a militant group called Muslims of America linked to the terrorist group Al Fuqra, evaded American gun laws in order to buy weapons including an SKS assault rifle, and AK-47 ammunition. They were arrested in the fall of 2001 (Plaster, 1999).
  • Beginning in 1998 Stephen Jorgensen purchased hundreds of firearms, including AK-47 clones called MAK-90s, with plans to ship them overseas from Tampa, Florida.

Further, Guy Smith points out the following facts in his “Gun Facts Version 3.3 (2003)”:

  • .50 caliber rifles have only been used in 18 crimes in the history of the United States.
  • .50 caliber rifles were not sold to terrorists. The rifles in question were sold to the United States government. The U.S. government gave the rifles to Afghan freedom fighters to defeat the former Soviet Union. There is no direct connection between the terrorists and the .5 caliber rifles. In fact, none of the rifles have been used in terrorist actions.
  • The average .50-caliber enthusiast is a successful businessman with an annual income of $50,000 or more.
  • .50 caliber rifles cannot pierce airlines fuel tanks from a mile away. Even the most expert long distance shooters cannot hit a stationary target under perfect, windless weather conditions at such distances.
  • The bullet from this gun cannot penetrate the concrete bunkers. The fact is that it takes 300 rounds to penetrate 2 meters of reinforced concrete at 100 meters. Moreover, at $5 per round, it would cost a terrorist $1,500 in ammunition to shoot into one bunker.
  • The .50 caliber round is not capable of piercing light armor vehicles at 4 miles. But the fact is at 35 meters distance [0.5% of the mythical distance], a .50 round will go through one inch armor plate.
  • .50 caliber rifles cannot knock a helicopter from the sky. The terminal energy of a .50 caliber (6,000 ft-lbs) is not enough to knock a modern military aircraft from the sky unless it hits a critical component like a fuel line.
  • These guns are not for snipers. They are for shooters (Smith, 2003).

The Government Accountability Office and the .5 caliber rifle:

The GAO investigated the possible criminal misuse of .50 caliber semiautomatic rifles and found a lot of incriminating evidence in this regard[5]. In a case currently pending in San Juan, Puerto Rico, seven Cuban-Americans have been indicted in an alleged plot to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro with .50 caliber rifles. Pending cases in the United States involve the smuggling of .50 caliber rifles-purchased legally in the United States-to overseas locations by terrorist groups, the smuggling of these rifles into Mexico for use by drug cartels, and the possession of .50 caliber rifles by an illegal alien who was attempting to amass a stockpile of weapons[6] (GAO, 1999).

A joint ATF-Internal Revenue Service investigation reveals that a suspect had purchased two .50 caliber rifles using a false identity. Three other cases in California, Indiana, and Missouri involved drug search warrants in which .50 caliber rifles were recovered at the scene. The search in the house of an apparent mentally ill person revealed 15 firearms, including a .50 caliber rifle that he was able to purchase legally because he had no criminal record (GAO, 1999). Finally, a .50 caliber rifle purchased in Wyoming was recovered at the scene of the multiple homicides of Mexican drug cartel members in Sinaloa, Mexico (GAO, 1999). This proves that the .50 caliber rifle is used for criminal activity.

Shift in the Republican Stand:

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) introduced H.R. 654, which he calls the “.50 Caliber Sniper Rifle Reduction Act.” According to this bill, all .50 caliber hunting rifles are to be banned; all legal owners of .50 caliber rifles should get their guns registered, all manually-loaded rifles are banned and legal owners of .50 caliber rifles cannot sell them or pass it on to his family. For years and years, Democrats have stood for gun control and Republicans have stood for gun rights. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was one of the earliest Democrats who fought for gun control laws during the period of Bill Clinton and she used the same premises to argue for total gun ban on .50 caliber rifles.  However, in the wake of terrorism, there is a mild shift within the Republican party as more Republicans are supporting gun control laws. Recently, Republicans Jim Brady and Sara Brady have launched the Campaign against Illegal guns as he believes that this would end the tragic toll of gun violence in the country permanently.

The Violence Policy Center and its take on .50 caliber sniper rifles:

The purchase of this .50 sniper rifles in the U.S. by terrorists, was first reported by the Violence Policy Center (VPC) in its 2001 publication “Voting From the Rooftops: How the Gun Industry Armed Osama bin Laden, Other Foreign and Domestic Terrorists, and Common Criminals With .50 Caliber Sniper Rifles”. Subsequent VPC studies have revealed the disastrous consequences of .50 caliber rifles. The report holds that these rifles are accurate over a mile and can be used to attack bulk fuel tanks and other high-value targets from a distance. The VPC says they also have the ability to destroy commercial aircraft. The VPC has also detailed their criminal use in the U.S. Under federal law, .50 caliber rifles are as easy to buy as hunting rifles, and less restricted than handguns (Plaster, 2003).

California and .50 caliber rifle ban:

The Government Accountability Office has found that .50 caliber rifles are truly associated with significant criminal activity. Yet, under the federal law, these guns can be purchased by 18-year olds. Because of gun shows where unlicensed individuals can sell firearms without conducting background checks, .50 caliber rifles can be purchased nationwide by criminals and potential terrorists very easily (Leftwich, 2004). Although there are no federal restrictions on the ownership or use of the -50 caliber semiautomatic rifle, some state and local governments have passed laws governing the sale of these weapons.

Maryland, for example, has listed the Barrett model .50 caliber rifle as an assault weapon in the Annotated Code of Maryland (MD. ANN. CODE) art. 27 section 441(d). Maryland requires prospective purchasers to fill out an application, subjects them to a ‘I-day waiting period, and requires the Maryland State Police to conduct a background investigation to determine whether the statements made in the application are true. (MD. ANN. CODE art. 27, section 442). Apart from this, the GAO has found that .50 guns were freely available in other states such as Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska and Oregon[7].

The effort to ban .50 caliber sniper rifles was led by Assemblyman Paul Koretz and other gun violence prevention leaders in the California Assembly and Senate, as well as the San Francisco based Trauma Foundation and the Los Angeles-based Violence. The Coalition was successful in encouraging the Santa Barbara. City Council to support this legislation and they unanimously approved sending a letter of support to Governor Schwarzenegger urging that he sign AB 50, the .50 caliber sniper rifle ban. Contrary to other Republican lawmakers, who are opponents of gun control, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a bill banning .50-caliber BMG rifles. Existing law makes it an offense, subject to certain exceptions, for any person to manufacture or cause to be manufactured, import into this state, transport, distribute, keep for sale, offer or expose for sale, give, lend or possess an assault weapon, in California (The Washington Times, 2004). This bill would extend those provisions to include a .50 BMG rifle.

Other ‘SNIPER’ guns:

It must be noted that the .50 caliber isn’t the only “sniper rifle” the gun grabbers ultimately intend to target. The publication by VPC titled, “One Shot, One Kill” includes the .338 Lapua Magnum, the 7.62 mm, the .308 Winchester, the .243 Winchester, the .30-06, the .223 and .300 Winchester Magnum, the aforementioned .50 caliber, and others. Another appendix, “Gallery of Sniper Rifles,” lists rifles manufactured by familiar names like Armalite, Garand, Remington, Robar, Savage, and SIG (Bonta, 2002). The editor of the fan magazine Gun World also wrote in August 2001 about the trend in sales of police sniper rifles, which are generally in the 30 caliber range.” The document also warns that entrepreneurs are now working non new designs such as the .408 Cheyenne Tactical…. and the .338 Lapua Magnum” (Bonta, 2002).

The Violence Policy Center (VPC) June 2, 2004 released a new study, Vest Buster: The .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum – The Gun Industry’s Latest Challenge to Law. According to this report titled “Enforcement Body Armor” the standard ammunition fired by the recently introduced .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum revolver can penetrate the highest level of body armor worn by the nation’s police while on patrol. The .500 Magnum thus brings a new level of handgun threat to the nation’s streets. Tom Diaz, VPC senior policy analyst and study author says that this handgun is sold along with a shoulder holster that makes it easy to conceal.  This gun is representative of Smith & Wesson tradition of designing extremely powerful handguns. The ban on .50 caliber rifles looks stupid in the light of easily available Smith and Wesson .500 Magnum.

Gun shows and availability of the .50 caliber rifle:

One of the major reasons behind the ban of .50 caliber rifles is to prevent it being sold without background checks. Legalizing assault weapons allows sale of guns at gun shows without background checks. “There are roughly 4,500 gun shows held every year, each one providing an opportunity for guns to easily fall into the hands of criminals and terrorists”[8]. This is allowed by Federal law. Senator John McCain and Senator Charles Schumer of New York have observed that gun shows allows foreign terrorists to buy guns at these gun shows.  In a recent New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof wrote that a Michigan gun show he attended “was the place to buy any kind of pistol and lots more: huge .50-caliber semiautomatic rifles, fuse wire, Confederate flags and 75-round clips for an AK-47 … plus instruction manuals for converting semiautomatic rifles into machine guns and, for $10, ‘How to Build Your Own Bazooka’[9]. These facts really underline the importance of banning the .50 caliber rifle in the United States.


Ban or no ban, society continues to be threatened by weapons and that is a fact. To counter the threat due to weapons, there must be an integrated effort at all levels of the government to establish uniform controls across the nation. Banning just one particular model of a weapon and allowing others would call for increasing innovation in discovering new weapons. Hence, the issue of banning .50 caliber rifles in California is welcomed, it should also set the precedent for establishing tighter regulations all over the country.


Bonta, Steve (2002). Gun Grab Revival. The New American. Volume 18, No. 03, February 11, 2002. http://www.thenewamerican.com/tna/2002/02-11-2002/vo18no03_gungrab.htm

CBS (2005). Big Rifle a Terrorist Tool? January 9, 2005. 60 Minutes. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/01/06/60minutes/main665257.shtml

CGV (1999). Does Society Need Sniper Rifles. http://www.sbcoalition.org/articles/article.asp?Article=20

GAO (1999). Availability of .50 Caliber Semiautomatic Rifles. May 3, 1999.

GAO (1999). Weaponry: .50 Caliber Rifle Crime. July 15, 1999

OSI (Open Society Institute), Gun Control in the United States, April 2000, http://www.soros.org/initiatives/justice/articles_publications/publications/gun_report_20000401/GunReport.pdf

Plaster, L. John (1999). One Shot, One Kill: Civilian Sales of Military Sniper Rifles. Violence Policy Center. http://www.vpc.org/studies/sniper.htm

Smith, Guy (2003). Gun Facts Version 3.3

Stopthenra.com (2004). Terrorism and the Assault Weapons Ban: The Threat to Homeland Security. September 12, 2004.

The Washington Times (2004). Arnold signs bill to ban .50 caliber BMG rifles. http://www.washingtontimes.com/national/20040914-114028-9959r.htm

[1] Bonta, Steve (2002). Gun Grab Revival. The New American. Volume 18, No. 03, February 11, 2002. http://www.thenewamerican.com/tna/2002/02-11-2002/vo18no03_gungrab.htm

[2] Plaster, L. John (1999). One Shot, One Kill: Civilian Sales of Military Sniper Rifles. Violence Policy Center. http://www.vpc.org/studies/sniper.htm

[3] CGV (1999). Does Society Need Sniper Rifles. http://www.sbcoalition.org/articles/article.asp?Article=20

[4] Plaster, L. John (1999). One Shot, One Kill: Civilian Sales of Military Sniper Rifles. Violence Policy Center. http://www.vpc.org/studies/sniper.htm

[5] GAO (1999). Weaponry: .50 Caliber Rifle Crime. July 15, 1999

[6] GAO (1999). Weaponry: .50 Caliber Rifle Crime. July 15, 1999

[7] GAO (1999). Availability of .50 Caliber Semiautomatic Rifles. May 3, 1999

[8] Stopthenra.com (2004). Terrorism and the Assault Weapons Ban: The Threat to Homeland Security. September 12, 2004.

[9] Stopthenra.com (2004). Terrorism and the Assault Weapons Ban: The Threat to Homeland Security. September 12, 2004.

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