California Bans a Large-Caliber Gun, and the Battle Is On

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Tue Jan 4 06:53:59 PST 2005


The New York Times

January 4, 2005

California Bans a Large-Caliber Gun, and the Battle Is On

AN FRANCISCO, Jan. 3 - California has become the first state to ban a
powerful .50-caliber long-range rifle that gun control advocates portray as
a military firearm that could easily fall into the hands of terrorists bent
on assassination or shooting down an airplane.

Under the ban, which was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in
September and took effect on Jan. 1, it is now illegal to manufacture,
sell, distribute or import a weapon known as the .50-caliber BMG, or
Browning machine gun rifle, a single-shot weapon widely used not only by
law enforcement officers and the military but, more recently, by civilian
sport shooters as well.

 The new law limits possession to those who already own the rifle; they
have until April 30, 2006, to register it or face a misdemeanor charge.

 Gun rights advocates fear that the California legislation will prompt
other states to follow - similar efforts have been undertaken in New York,
Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and Virginia, but have failed - and
enthusiasts are already devising ways to alter the gun and so circumvent
the law without breaking it.

 Another result of the law is that in the weeks before it took effect,
people rushing to buy the limited supplies of .50 BMG's descended on gun
shops throughout California. Now that it is in force, some of the gun's
out-of-state makers and distributors have threatened not to sell any of
their firearms or services here.

"We all think it's the first step toward banning sniper rifles," said
Michael Fournier, owner of the Gun Exchange, a shop in San Jose. "They keep
chipping away a little at a time. Eventually they'll try to get them all."

A lawyer for the California Rifle and Pistol Association, a lobby that
fought the legislation, said that for the first time gun control advocates
had managed "to demonize" a firearm that gun proponents and lawmaker allies
say has never been used to commit a crime in the United States.

The lawyer, Chuck Michel, said the .50 BMG, which weighs 30 pounds and can
cost $2,000 to $8,000, was typically bought by collectors, shooting range
enthusiasts and skilled competitors.

"Criminals don't carry around very pricey, very heavy rifles," Mr. Michel
said. "They want handguns they can conceal."

The .50 BMG rifle, patented in 1987 by Barrett Firearms Manufacturing of
Murfreesboro, Tenn., was designed as a sniper weapon for law enforcement
and the military; it was widely used by American troops during the Persian
Gulf war of 1991.

Manufacturers say the rifle is accurate at a range of up to 2,000 yards,
more than a mile. It fires bullets five and a half inches long described as
powerful enough to rip through armor, much less the thin aluminum skin that
covers commercial airliners.

 "They can pierce the skin of an aircraft," said Daniel R. Vice, a lawyer
with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a central supporter of the
law. "It could be used to shoot down an airplane. And we certainly don't
want to wait until a terrorist buys one before we ban it."

The legislation's author, Assemblyman Paul Koretz, a Democrat from West
Hollywood, concedes that street criminals would most likely view the .50
BMG as too much gun for the typical robbery or drive-by shooting. Rather,
the law is intended to help keep the weapon out of the hands of
"terrorists, general nut cases and survivalists," Mr. Koretz said, citing
government reports suggesting that it had been used in assassinations
overseas and that at least 25 had been bought by Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Michel, the lawyer for the gun rights group, said that adopting the ban
in the name of fighting terrorism was without merit.

"The terrorist can get a nuclear dirty bomb or a shoulder-mounted rocket
launcher," he said. "The .50-caliber is just a peashooter in comparison."

But while there is no conclusive evidence that the .50 BMG rifle has ever
been used in the United States to commit a felony, it has nonetheless been
seized from American criminals' arsenals. A 1999 briefing paper from the
General Accounting Office, predecessor of the Government Accountability
Office, Congress's investigative arm, said, "We have established a nexus to
terrorist groups, outlaw motorcycle gangs, international drug cartels,
domestic drug dealers, religious cults, militia groups, potential assassins
and violent criminals."

A side effect of the new law is the ill will it has instilled toward Mr.
Schwarzenegger among gun rights advocates. Many of them supported him for
governor, and maintain that his signing the legislation was an act of

 "You know what we call him?" said Jerry Sloan, assistant manager of
Precision Arms, a shop in Escondido. "Benedict Arnold."

Terri Carbaugh, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Mr. Schwarzenegger, a
Republican, had made his position clear during his campaign.

 "It's a military-type weapon," Ms. Carbaugh said of the .50 BMG, "and he
believes the gun presents a clear and present danger to the general public."

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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