was only a matter of time before the gun-ban lobby took advantage
of Americans' fears of terrorist attacks to scare them into giving
up more of their rights. Gun banners are now rushing to demonize
the latest politically incorrect sporting gun the .50-caliber
target rifle. The Washington, D.C.-based Violence
Policy Center (VPC) now equates .50-caliber hobbyists with gunrunners
for the Taliban. The VPC has posted on its website a frantic report
www.vpc.org/studies/roofcont.htm aimed at .50-caliber shooters.
The VPC report
makes much of its "evidence that Al Qaeda bought 25 Barrett
.50 caliber sniper rifles" in the late 1980s. But not mentioned
is the fact that at the time of the transfer, the United States
was supporting Afghanistan's mujahedeen against the Soviet
puppet government. All the mujahedeen were America's allies
The VPC states:
"Nor do we know whether the guns were sold directly from the
factory or through a dealer or dealers." In fact, these rifles
were paid for and shipped by the U.S. government. Explains
Ronnie Barrett, president of Barrett Firearms (in Murfreesboro,
Tenn.), "Barrett rifles were picked up by U.S. government trucks,
shipped to U.S. government bases, and shipped to those Afghan freedom
After the VPC
report came out, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms visited
plant and confirmed that the late-1980s sales were in full compliance
with the law, as all of Barrett's sales have been.
VPC could plead ignorance for the content of its October 2001 report,
which insinuated that Barrett Firearms knowingly sent guns to al
Qaeda. But now, the facts have come out showing beyond any doubt
that Barrett's sale was to the U.S. government, and that it was
the U.S. government that took the guns to Afghanistan. Yet the VPC
has failed to correct its original report, and so the initial charges
against Barrett remain on the VPC website.
Even in the
context of the often-acrimonious gun-control debate, the VPC's smear
is astonishingly mean-spirited. Imagine if, in 1951, at the height
of the Korean War, a pressure group claimed that "The Jones
Corporation sold rifles to the Soviet Communists!" while omitting
the fact that the sale was actually to the United States government,
which then shipped the guns to the Soviet army in 1943, when
the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were allies against Hitler.
and deception are nothing new for the VPC, which takes much greater
liberties with the truth than does, for example, the Coalition
to Stop Gun Violence. The VPC spread the blatantly false rumor
that Professor John Lott's research was "in essence, funded
by the firearms industry." Even the Washington Post
reported that this charge was untrue.
A report by
the General Accounting Office summarizes the 18 cases in which a
.50-caliber firearm has ever been connected to a criminal, such
as an illegal alien accumulating firearms. (Report no. OSI-99-15R,
revised Oct. 21, 2001.) The VPC presents these cases in the most
lurid manner possible though it would be possible to present
similarly lurid stories for almost any other caliber of firearm,
and there would be far more than 18 cases. Indeed, if the VPC hated
swimmers as much as it hates gun owners, it could produce another
report detailing each of the two dozen murders by drowning which
take place every year.
The VPC has
been trying to start a holy war against the .50-caliber shooting
community since 1999. Their congressional allies Chicago's
Rep. Rod Blagojevich and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein
have sponsored the "Military Sniper Weapon Regulation Act"
and have denounced .50-caliber target shooters as "terrorists,
doomsday cultists, and criminals" (in the words of Sen. Feinstein).
the owners of these big guns are the exact opposite of the villains
Feinstein and Blagojevich want us to believe they are. Most are
like John Burtt, a retired police officer with the demeanor of a
for the Fifty
Caliber Shooters Policy Institute, Burtt has the task of undoing
the hatchet job of folks like Feinstein, Blagojevich, and the VPC
on the sport of .50-caliber target shooting. In testimony before
Congress, Burtt explained that the typical participant in the sport
of .50-caliber target shooting has the demographic profile of
.50-caliber enthusiast is a successful businessman with an annual
income of $50,000 or more. Of the 3,200 members of the Fifty Caliber
Shooters Association, at least 75 are physicians.
experts on .50-caliber technology, the association freely shares
its research findings with law-enforcement and military authorities.
Knowledge developed through the civilian sport of .50-caliber long-range
target shooting has played an important role in the development
of .50-caliber rifles for military use. This is part of the broader
pattern of the historical development of American firearms, in which
the civilians and military users of firearms have worked together
constructively, with important benefits to both the military and
to sport shooting.
The VPC, though,
claims these are "men in states of arrested adolescence."
target rifles lethal weapons? Certainly. But so is a .458-caliber
rifle, and so is a .475-caliber rifle both of which are very
powerful hunting rounds. If gun prohibitionists want to argue that
rifles which have barrels .50 inches in diameter are too big, but
rifles which have barrels .475 inches in diameter are great sporting
guns, let them make that argument. If they want to argue for banning
.50-caliber guns as a first step towards banning .475, .458, and
any other calibers they can ban, let them make that argument too
but not with hysterical claims that .50-caliber weapons are
somehow utterly different from other guns.
President of the "Million" Mom March, asserts that the
Founding Fathers would have had no use for a .50-caliber rifle (Nov.
28, 2001, McKendree College debate). Actually, the common guns of
the early American republic were larger than .50 caliber. The Queen
Anne Colonial Musket (manufactured around 1670-1700) was .812. That
gun was supplanted by various versions of the English Brown Bess
musket, which was .75 caliber. America's French allies supplied
the Patriots with the .70 Charleville Musket. The Dutch muskets
bought by the Americans were .65 caliber.
of the French-pattern .70-caliber musket began in 1795, with the
American Springfield Musket. The famous Kentucky Rifle (a name eventually
given to most rifles made by German immigrants) was usually .60
to .75 caliber before 1780, and .50 caliber after that. American
rifles and muskets in the period from the Revolution to the Civil
War tended to run in the .54 or .69 range.
As for pistols,
the standard British service pistol after 1760 carried by
cavalry and by officers was .69 caliber. French pistols were
standardized in 1777, at .67. Many American pistols manufactured
for militia, self-defense, and other uses in the first decades of
the 19th century ranged from .50 to .69 caliber. Deringer made very
compact pistols in .52 and .54 "pocket rockets"
In other words,
a great many of the guns which were most commonly owned and known
in early America were at least .50 caliber.
Nor did large-caliber
guns become uncommon later. In the latter half of the 19th century,
classic American manufacturers such as Winchester, Remington, Sharps,
and Maynard produced many rifles in the .50-caliber size or larger
including the Winchester Spencer Carbine, the Remington Model
1871, and the Sharps Side-Hammer Rifle. Harold Williamson's book
Winchester (1952) lists 19 types of ammunition manufactured
by Winchester, in calibers of .50 and above, between 1876 and 1939.
memoir Hunting Trips of a Ranchman tells of discarding his
"50-caliber, double-barreled English express" in favor
of "a .50-115 6-shot Ballard express."
.50-caliber rifles, the 19th century models had long-range power.
Marksmen used the .50-90 Sharps rifle to kill Indians a mile away.
And these guns could be quite powerful, since some were designed
for buffalo hunting. (The Indians, of course, had .50-caliber firearms
of their own; Geronimo's collection included a Springfield .50-70
M1868 and, possibly, a Spencer .56-46.)
antique guns are, understandably, treasured by their owners, who
tend to be loath to fire them. While such guns may well have been
used in frontier crimes long ago, they are in very peaceful hands
today. Yet Sen. Feinstein's "Military Sniper Weapon Regulation
Act" (S. .505) would impose severe restrictions on these .50-caliber
collectors, under the claim that they pose "a serious and substantial
threat to the national security." Targeted by the Feinstein
bill would be antiques such as Remington, Springfield, Spencer,
and Sharps firearms dating back to the 19th century, since they
are centerfire guns firing .50-caliber cartridges.
Some of the
types of ammunition whose firearms would be treated like modern
machine guns under the Feinstein bill include:
.50 Maynard. Introduced 1865.
.50 U.S. Carbine. Introduced 1870.
.50-50 Maynard. Introduced 1882.
.50-70 Maynard. Introduced 1873.
.50-70 Musket. Introduced 1866.
.50-90 Sharps, .50-100 Sharps, .50-110 Sharps. All introduced
.50-95 Winchester Express. Introduced 1876.
.50-100 Winchester, .50-105 Winchester, .50-110 Winchester. All
.50-115 Bullard. Introduced 1886.
.50-140 Sharps. Introduced 1860.
.50-140 Winchester. Introduced about 1860.
in 1994, Sen. Feinstein pushed into law her ban on so-called "assault
weapons." Her law was titled the "Public Safety and Recreational
Firearms Use Protection Act," and contained a list of several
hundred models of "recreational firearms." Included in
her list of benign guns is the Barrett Model 90 Bolt Action Rifle
a .50-caliber target rifle. Yet Sen. Feinstein's new bill
claims that "these firearms are neither designed nor used in
any significant number for legitimate sporting or hunting purposes
and are clearly distinguishable from rifles intended for sporting
and hunting use."
So the very
same guns that Sen. Feinstein lauded in her "Recreational Firearms
Use Protection Act," in 1994, are now said to be "clearly
distinguishable from rifles intended for sporting and hunting use."
One suspects that firearms stay on her personal list of "good"
guns only so long as there is no political opportunity to urge their
advocates are free to make the case for The Incredible Shrinking
Second Amendment to argue that that the Second Amendment
today must not be allowed to protect guns which fire bullets in
sizes that were ubiquitous when the Second Amendment was written,
as well as in the century that followed.
But what gun-prohibition
groups should not do is to make outrageous and vicious smears
against the hobbyists who shoot .50-caliber rifles, or against the
companies that supply these target guns. Such tactics are reprehensible
anytime, but in wartime, false accusations of near-treason are as
unacceptable as anthrax hoaxes.
We have repeatedly
told gun-rights activists that it is their responsibility to rein
in those who use improper tactics (such as telephoning pro-control
politicians at home late at night). It is now time for the responsible
elements in America's gun-control community to insist that the gun-control
battle be fought with legitimate arguments and not with the
character assassination of innocent Americans.
When this column was written in December, the Violence Policy Center
had produced no evidence to address the October statement of Ronnie
Barrett, the head of Barrett Firearms, that the Barrett rifles which
went to Afghanistan were sent as part of a U.S. government program.
Mr. Barrett's statement was reported in the Associated Press shortly
after the Violence Policy Center released its "Voting from
the Rooftops" paper.
On February 13, 2002, the VPC put out a
short paper offering more evidence for its claims. The new paper
consists mainly of quotes from the testimony of an Al Qaeda member
who testified in federal court about the Barrett rifles, and of
the VPC's summary of statements which the VPC claims were made to
the VPC by U.S. foreign-affairs officials, none of whom are named.
Readers will have to make their own judgments about the credibility
of a terrorist's sworn testimony, regarding events from about a
decade earlier. The VPC paper puts a great deal of effort into parsing
the precise phrasing of the terrorist's testimony, although such
heavy reliance on the exact word choice of someone who is almost
certainly not a native speaker of English may not be warranted.
As for the reported statements of U.S. officials, it is difficult
to assess the reliability of anonymous statements, particularly
when the statements are filtered through an organization which,
in my opinion, has a poor track record for honesty and accuracy.
The VPC has made outrageous and ridiculous
personal attacks on John Lott. The VPC has made grossly
distorted claims about the records of concealed carry permit
holders in states such as Texas-reporting, for example, that concealed
carry permit holders had been arrested for homicide, but failing
to note that cases had been dismissed because the permit holders
were acting in lawful self-defense. The VPC's book about the American
firearms industry is written by Tom Diaz, the self-described former
"gun nut" who also wrote the VPC's paper on .50 caliber
firearms. The book contains a variety
of errors about ammunition and firearms which appear to me to
be unlikely to be the product of a former gun enthusiast.
Hypothesizing that the VPC accurately and fully reported what the
officials said, it is also true that an official's admitting to
having participated in a program which resulted in the transfer
of weapons to bin Laden could cause a very serious career problem
for the official.
Still, the new VPC paper is a commendable step forward, because
it finally responds to Mr. Barrett's October statements. I encourage
people to read the VPC's new paper, and to make their own determinations