November 26, 2005

Manufacturing a Gun Crisis with the Associated Press

Read this article, and you'd get the impression that there is a tank-killing, airplane-destroying rifle being bought by drug dealers, survivalists, and terrorists en masse.

It is too bad that almost all of what they write is inaccurate hyperbole.

For example:

When U.S. soldiers need to penetrate a tank's armor from a mile away, they count on a weapon that evolved from the garage tinkering of a former wedding photographer.

There is not a single tank made since early in World War Two that could be penetrated by an armor-piercing bullet from a .50 BMG. Not one. Only unarmored vehicles (which can be penetrated by literally any rifle, including a .22) and lightly-armored personnel carriers are threatened by .50 BMG rounds.

The .50-caliber rifle created by Ronnie Barrett and sold by his company, Barrett Firearms Manufacturing Inc., is the most powerful firearm civilians can buy.

Not quite accurate. While the 50. BMG is currently the most powerful centerfire rifle cartridge in wide distribution*, Barrett is far from being the only manufacturer making these rifles. They are offered by Accuracy International, Anzio Ironworks, Armalite, and more than a dozen other rifle manufacturers.

It weighs about 30 pounds and can hit targets up to 2,000 yards away with armor-piercing bullets.

This is accurate, though finding an area where you can see a target 2,000 yards away is somewhat problematic.

That kind of power has drawn a customer base of gun enthusiasts, Hollywood actors and Barrett's most loyal buyer, the U.S. military, which has been buying Barrett's rifles since the 1980s and using them in combat from the 1991 Gulf War to the present.

Also true.

But the powerful gun has drawn plenty of critics, who say the rifle could be used by terrorists to bring down commercial airliners or penetrate rail cars and storage plants holding hazardous materials.

This rifle has drawn plenty of ignorant critics, including, apparently, the Associated Press. A .50 rifle is less likely to bring down a commercial airliner than any other kind of rifle. Why?

The vast majority of .50 BMG rifles are single-shot weapons. The odds of hitting an airplane moving several hundred miles an hour with a single bullet from a 30-pound, handheld or bipod-mounted weapon are extremely remote, and the odds of a single half-inch wide bullet hitting anything of significance on an airborne aircraft verges on the impossible. (Publicola explains in exquisite detail why shooting an aircraft at range with a .50 BMG is highly improbable.)

Rail cars and storage tanks are a legitimate target for a .50 BMG rifle, but it is far easier to acquire or manufacture explosives that would cause far more damage to the targeted structure.

Tom Diaz, a senior policy analyst with the Washington-based Violence Policy Center, says the guns should be more regulated and harder to purchase.

The gun can now be bought by anyone 18 or older who passes a background check.

"They're (.50 caliber) easier to buy than a handgun," Diaz said. "These are ideal weapons of terrorist attack. Very dangerous elements gravitate toward these weapons."

Mr. Diaz, of course, is guilty of extreme hyperbole. .50 BMG-chambered weapons are not "easier to buy than a handgun" except in his fevered imagination.

The Barrett M82 pictured in the MSNBC-version of this Associated Press article retails for $7,500. Most single shot .50 BMG rifles range from $2,600 upwards. For this reason, no national sporting good stores carry this caliber of firearm, nor its ammunition, which costs $3-$5 per cartridge. It is prohibitively expensive for all but the most affluent customers. Only a tiny fraction of gun shops across the nation stock such a firearm, whereas almost all typically stock dozens to hundreds of pistols.

If 50 BMG rifles are the "ideal weapons of terrorist attack," then why hasn't a .50 rifle ever been used in a terror attack anywhere in the world? Not once have I ever heard of an incident reported where a .50 BMG rifle was used in a terror attack, not can I find any evidence of such an attack.

Nor can I find any evidence that "dangerous elements" gravitate towards such a weapon. More people have walked on water than have been assaulted with a .50 BMG rifle.

Mr. Diaz's hyperbole verges on being a bald-faced lie.

The guns are used by most civilians for hunting big game and in marksmanship competitions.

I'd be very interested to see who the Associated Press find who uses such a weapon for hunting. At roughly 30 lbs and five feet, these rifles are far too impractical for hunting purposes based upon size and weight alone. They are simply too heavy to carry afield. In addition, the .50 cartridge is not useful as a hunting round, being vastly overgunned for every big game animal on the planet.

Long-range target shooting with .50 BMG rifles, on the other hand is rapidly growing in popularity, as the existence and growing membership of the FCSA and .50 BMG-capable target ranges proves.

Joseph King, a terrorism expert at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said terrorists could use the weapon to take out a plane.

"I don't understand what good a .50-caliber is going to do you," King said. "I don't understand any civilian use of it. The only thing it's good for is for military or police application. You can't really hunt with it because it would destroy most of the meat."

This has been previously addressed. .50 BMG rifles are very unlikely to successful carry out an attack against an aircraft. While Mr. Jay may claim terrorism expertise, he seems to have gathered his firearms and aeronautical knowledge from Hollywood.

"I don't understand what good" is not a valid legal argument in this country. While not understanding a good use for something might be a reason to outlaw everything from foosball tables to the Wonderbra for Mr. King, his potential fear of Wonderbras and guns doesn't have to ruin the enjoyment of such products for everyone else.

Barrett and gun advocates say the gun's power has been exaggerated and doesn't pose a threat to citizens because the weapons are too expensive and heavy to be used by criminals.

As I've been saying...

The heavy recoil of the Browning made it nearly impossible to shoot without it being mounted on a turret, but Barrett's rifle reduces recoil to the point where it can be shoulder-fired, while the weapon rests on a bipod.

Actually, the 84-pound weight of the M2 Browning all but negated recoil, but made sturdy mounts necessary.

There are enough things in this world to worry about in this world without the Associated Press manufacturing hysterics. Don't you agree?

* The .50 BMG is not the most powerful machine gun cartridge available in a rifle as the Associated Press claims. There are at least three rifle cartridges that have more power. The 12.7mm Russian cartridge uses the same .50 bullet, but has a case length 9mm longer, and therefore can hold more powder (producing more energy, range, and penetration) than the .50 BMG.

The 14.5mm Russian and 14.5 JDJ, while made in smaller numbers and requiring a destructive device exemption, both fire a bullet substantially larger than the .50 BMG, and the 14.5 Russian cartridge generates nearly twice the muzzle energy.

Update As a former member of the British Army's Queen's Own Highlanders reminds me in the comments, A Barrett Light 50 was used by an IRA sniper team between 1992-97, and killed 11 members of the security forces during that time period with single shot attacks.

I would agree with Dave T. that these IRA sniper attacks are indeed terror attacks, they just did not happen to fit the mass casualty definition of terrorism that has become common today and was implied in the AP article.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at November 26, 2005 11:17 PM | TrackBack

"Known as the Barrett Light Fifty, the weapon was eventually smuggled into Ireland and was used by the IRA to kill eleven members of the security forces in one shot attacks mostly in south Armagh between 1992 and 1997. It was possibly the most feared gun in the IRA's arsenal at the time."

I was shot at by one of these - missed my patrol but they got a hit a week earlier in Crossmaglen South Armagh. Now whilst I appreciate 'terrorism' might not have the same definition with some Americans if it is in 'Irish' context, nevertheless I would class these sniper attacks as 'terrorism'.

The fact that the sniper was eventually found to be an American and that AQ are alleged to have obtained 25 of these rifles from the IRA in 1988 also gives cause for concern.

Just a wee point. Good blog!

Posted by: Dave t at November 27, 2005 08:42 AM

The next thing you know, they'll be trying to outlaw fishing with dynamite. These people have no respect for game-taking sportsmen.

These people wouldn't sing this airplane tune if they had seen some of the Huey helicopters that "flew home" with well over 100 .30 caliber and .51 caliber hits in Vietnam. And helicopters are considered significantly more vulnerable than are fixed wing craft. SA-7 GRAILs (Russian equivalent to our Stinger shoulder fired anit-aircraft missiles) would be much more effective and are more plentiful than are Barretts.

Sniping does have a terror application as the first commenter pointed out. However, the radical Islamic terrorist's current tactics seem bent on grandiose. They want to kill and injure a lot more than one person at a time. I don't see the .50 caliber rifle (in the hands of radical Islamic terrorists) as any kind of significant threat to the people of the US. The weapon of choice for the DC snipers (who by coincidence were Muuslim) was a .223 caliber, not .50 caliber.

Posted by: Old Soldier at November 27, 2005 09:38 AM

I saw this article in the Houston Chronicle yesterday, and I just KNEW there's be a quote from an anti-gunner from the VPC. It would have been nice if the AP reporter had asked some experts about Diaz's outrageous claim, but as we've all seen from reports on gun-related issues, it's just entirely too much to ask to get both sides of the story reported fairly.

Posted by: Erik at November 27, 2005 10:42 AM

Dave T,

Thanks for the information. I think I'd heard rumours that these rifles had been used by a team in the IRA, but as the context of the AP article was the domestic U.S. use of this rifle as a terrorist weapon, it didn't cross my mind as I wrote the article. I added your information as an update to the main article.

Posted by: Confederate Yankee at November 27, 2005 10:57 AM

Cheers. I rather wish we weren't so hampered by the gun laws over here- only the criminals seem to have the damm things - witness the shooting dead of a female police officer and the injuring of another last week by what appear to be illegal immigrants who may have fled to Europe....

Posted by: Dave t at November 28, 2005 02:40 AM

Dave T, we have a saying here, "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns!", and sadly that's what appears to have happened in Britain.

Posted by: Tom T at November 28, 2005 06:40 AM

Yep! Part of the cunning plan by the undercover communists to keep the mobs under control. Did you know our Secretary of State for Defence (Rummy's equivalent) is a former Marxist...? As are many of the current government?!

Looks like old Joe Stalin's long term plan is working.....

Posted by: Dave t at November 28, 2005 08:04 AM

I've always wanted one of these. Out here in Texas, we can actually get 2000 yards of open space to shoot.
Dave T makes a good point, if obliquely. These guns are better for anti-personnel use than anti-vehicle (tanks, aircraft, etc.). Even a .50 cal makes a (relatively) small hole. I've been on the sending and receiving end of the M2 .50 cal machine gun and survived, so maybe I know a bit about this.
A far bigger worry is all of the anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets floating around the world. This whole discussion is just a subtle gun grab.

Posted by: old_dawg at November 28, 2005 10:08 AM

I was shooting at a target with my .22 rifle the other day. The bullet went right through the target and the straw bail behind it. 300 yards away, it smacked into a bug, killing it and ending the bullets kinetic energy.

Here's the bad part. The bug was the rare "split tailed dual winged orange spotted hairy cockroach". And that is why I'm for not only making .50 caliber guns illegal, but all guns! If it saves just one split tailed dual winged orange spotted hairy cockroach, it's worth it.

Posted by: Kevin at November 28, 2005 11:21 PM

Kevin, I read your pain, but who is going to ensure the low-lifed red handed shiftless six legged criminal roaches give up their arms in return?

Posted by: Old Soldier at November 29, 2005 08:59 AM

I've watched a video of "guys with big guns" shooting things...The .50 caliber was used to hit a car door. It was shot through a light cover of brush and grass. The round did NOT penetrate the old 57 chevy door with any effectiviness. It split into three pieces after conacting the small, light branchs of the shrubbery. The shooter did the forensics and said (paraphrasing) "Well, I guess the lesson is, if you must shoot through a simple unarmored car door, make sure your target isn't armored with light brush covering."

No way this round can penetrate a lightly armored vehicle. None.

Posted by: Connecticut Yankee at November 29, 2005 09:22 PM

Conn Yank,

Whatever you saw shot was NOT .50 BMG, which would not have any problem with a 57 Chevy's engine block, much less a door...

Posted by: Confederate Yankee at November 29, 2005 11:35 PM