Guns and (Character) Assassination

Using terror

By Dave Kopel research director, Independence Institute & Timothy Wheeler, Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, a Project of the Claremont Institute.

National Review Online. December 21, 2001 9:30 a.m. More by Kopel on .50 caliber guns.

It 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 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 then.

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 byte 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 fighters."

After the VPC report came out, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms visited Barrett's plant and confirmed that the late-1980s sales were in full compliance with the law, as all of Barrett's sales have been.

Arguably, the 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.

Character assassination 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).

In reality, 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 Sunday-school teacher.

As spokesman 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… a golfer.

The average .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.

As civilian 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."

Are .50-caliber 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.

Mary Blek, 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.

Domestic production 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" indeed.

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.

Teddy Roosevelt's 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."

Like modern .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.)

Nineteenth-century 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 Remington. Introduced 1867.
.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 1875.
.50-95 Winchester Express. Introduced 1876.
.50-100 Winchester, .50-105 Winchester, .50-110 Winchester. All introduced 1899.
.50-115 Bullard. Introduced 1886.
.50-140 Sharps. Introduced 1860.
.50-140 Winchester. Introduced about 1860.

Ironically, 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 prohibition.

Gun-prohibition 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.

Update 2/25/02
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 about credibility.

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