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Josh Sugarmann

Josh Sugarmann

Posted: February 7, 2006 02:01 PM

50-Caliber Sniper Rifles: Tools of Terror


Who needs a gun that is accurate to more than a mile, can down an airliner on takeoff or landing, and can penetrate steel plating? If you're the gun lobby and its friends in the firearms industry, the answer is simple: sportsmen! If you're law enforcement, the answer is equally simple: terrorists.

The gun in question is the 50-caliber armor-piercing sniper rifle, which is manufactured by a growing number of gunmakers across the U.S., including Barrett and Armalite. And last week a federal grand jury in Miami, Florida, unsealed an indictment that charged 10 foreign nationals with a variety of offenses, including attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

According to the 17-count indictment, the defendants offered to help persons they believed to be members of FARC buy fifty 50-calibers. Why travel to the U.S. to buy such a powerful weapon? Because despite their unmatched power, 50-caliber sniper rifles are sold under federal law with fewer controls than standard handguns. Accurate to over a mile, 50-caliber sniper rifles can penetrate armor plating and destroy aircraft, but are sold with fewer federal controls than a standard handgun.

A 2001 Violence Policy Center (VPC) study, Voting From the Rooftops, revealed how Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's terror network, purchased at least twenty-five 50-caliber anti-armor sniper rifles in the U.S. during the 1980s, and that an unknown number of the guns were also purchased in the U.S. by the terrorist Irish Republican Army. A number of domestic terror and fringe organizations have also purchased the guns in varying quantities.

A more recent VPC report, Clear and Present Danger: National Security Experts Warn About the Danger of Unrestricted Sales of 50-caliber Anti-Armor Sniper Rifles to Civilians, documented national security officials' concerns about the destructive capabilities of these military bred weapons. The study revealed the details of a report authored by a senior U.S. Secret Service official, previously classified as "Secret," warning that large caliber sniper rifles posed a threat to the President, other senior government officials, and to civil aviation. For those who doubt their concerns, consider this excerpt from the November 3, 2003, edition of Air Safety Week:

"Consider this scenario, from inside the cabin of an airliner momentarily halted in a line of aircraft on a taxiway, waiting for the final turn onto the runway for takeoff. Suddenly, a five-inch section of the cabin sidewall panel blows inward as the first .50-caliber slug penetrates the fuselage. The second bullet strikes a passenger seated by a window in the head, spattering adjacent passengers with a bloody spray of bone and brain. Passengers scream. Some pop open the overwing emergency exits while others lunge at the doors in a frantic scramble to get out of the airplane. The third bullet, fired from a different direction by a second sniper team, penetrates the cockpit windscreen, instantly killing the copilot.

"The third slug strikes the engine pylon, severing the power feeder cable from the engine generator. The severed wires create massive electrical arcing to structure. The fourth bullet strikes the wing fuel tank. The jet fuel spills out of the hole and is ignited by the sparks of the severed power feeder cable. The landing gear collapses under the burning wing as a smoke-tinged orange fireball climbs into the sky.

"The snipers, having wreaked such havoc in less than a minute, turn their attention to the last airplane in line for takeoff. With burning airplanes at both ends of the queue, the snipers then direct their fire at the airport rescue and firefighting (ARFF) vehicles dispatched to the scene."

In September 2004, California became the first state to specifically ban 50-caliber sniper rifles, with the measure being signed into law by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger on the same day that the federal assault weapons ban expired. Right now, legislation to restrict the weapons is being considered in Illinois, New York, and Hawaii.

These fights should be a lot easier. Not only have 50-caliber sniper rifles been used in terrorist acts, but we actually have terrorists coming to the U.S. to buy their tools of the trade. Think about that the next time you're sitting on the tarmac.