Survivors in the gun industry do not rest on their laurels. The entrepreneurs who powered the 50 caliber wave are already working on new designs.
One of these new designs is the .408 Cheyenne Tactical, manufactured by Tactical High Energy Impact Systems. Advertisements for the rifle invite the reader to “seize those mysterious distances beyond 1000 yards.”278 Material posted on the company’s Internet web site claims that the .408 Cheyenne Tactical cartridge “provides greater kinetic energy and hitting distance…but does not have the weight disadvantage of the .50 Browning cartridge.”279 The company says that the “mission for the sniper round is to selectively hit enemy targets located at great distances….[with] a limited anti-material role.”280 The maximum range is “known to be greater than 3000 yards.”281
Some manufacturers may choose to refine the .338 Lapua Magnum, an intermediate round falling in size and power somewhere between the traditional military 30 calibers and the .50 BMG. The .338 Lapua Magnum was designed in the late 1980s “as a long-range European military sniping round,” according to sniping expert John Plaster. He advises that its “great speed and heavy weight makes for especially lethal long-range shooting and good penetration against vehicles and aircraftï¿½typical counterterrorist targetsï¿½as well as building materials.”282 Some manufacturers already offer .338 Lapua Magnum sniper rifles.
According to Forbes, sniper magnate Ronnie G. Barrett plans later this year to make his “boldest move” yet, “when he steps out of the .50-caliber niche with a new .30-caliber tactical rifle designed for police SWAT teams. Barrett hopes that market will boost annual sales to $20 million over the next three years.”283 The magazine does not say whether Barrett plans to offer the new SWAT sniper rifle to civilians, but if the past is any guide, it will be. It is not clear whether the new 30 caliber will be a .338 Lapua Magnum.
What is clear is that the American people will remain prey to whatever more deadly innovation the gun industry comes up with until a change is made. That change ultimately must involve implementation of a regulatory mechanism that will subject firearms to the same product health and safety standards to which every other consumer product in America (except for guns and tobacco) is now subject.
A Rational Plan of Action
The Violence Policy Center proposes the following strategy for dealing with the deadly consequences that are certain to follow this cynical gun-industry marketing campaign.
Add 50 Caliber Sniper Rifles to the National Firearms Act
Congress should immediately amend federal law to bring .50BMG rifles under the National Firearms Act. This action would subject these weapons to the same regimen of registration, background checks, and taxation to which other weapons of war, such as machine guns and destructive devices, are currently subjected.
There should be no “grandfathering” of existing weapons to exempt them from the law, and any grace period for registration should be very short. America must know who besides Osama bin Laden possesses these deadly tools of assassination and terror.
Ban Export of 50 Caliber Sniper Rifles to Civilians
The President may not need to wait for Congress to take action on this point. He should immediately order the Department of State to review whether export of these weapons to civilians should be allowed under existing restrictions on export of weapons. Clearly it is not in the interest of America’s national security to allow any more 50 caliber sniper rifles to end up in the hands of international terrorists, drug lords, and common criminals.
Improve Reporting and Record-Keeping Requirements
Under current procedures, ATF cannot state with certainty how many 50 caliber rifles have been manufactured in the United States. Moreover, the minimum reporting requirements that do apply to firearm manufacturers do not even include the reporting of model numbers.
Likewise, information regarding how many of these sniper rifles have been used in crime is sketchy at best. ATF keeps track of how many times local police departments request that such weapons be traced. However, no information regarding the police department requesting the trace or the type of crime with which the weapon was associated is available.
This kind of information is essential to fully assessing the level of threat posed by these weapons. ATF should immediately revamp its reporting standards to require that the manufacturers of sniper rifles report the exact number of such weapons produced each year, including the caliber and model designation and the identity of any person to whom the weapon has been transferred by the manufacturer.
ATF should also enhance the collection, analysis, and dissemination of tracing data related to all sniper rifles. Specifically, ATF should collect and make available to the public information regarding the frequency of the use of such weapons in crime, including the nature of those crimes.
Use the Civil Justice System to Hold Manufacturers Accountable
The marketing of sniper rifles presents a classic case, using ordinary “black letter” tort concepts, of an industry’s calculated decision to sell unnecessarily powerful weapons of war as “toys” without restraintï¿½in reckless disregard of clearly foreseeable consequences stemming from the intended and advertised use of the product.
Given their acknowledged design purpose, sniper rifles are clearly qualitatively different from any other class of firearms. Other firearms sold in the civilian market are at least nominally designed and sold for sporting or supposed self-defense purposes. Sniper rifles, on the other hand, are designed and sold for the express purpose of killing people and destroying property. Civil courts should be prepared to recognize this fact.
Therefore, a useful strategy for effective control may lie in civil litigation, a strategy that would be enhanced if states passed legislation clearly establishing strict liability for damages resulting from the use or misuse of such weapons. Such litigation could impose tort liability, including punitive damages, for manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, importers, retailers, and any others who participate in bringing to the civilian market any sniper rifle (in any caliber) or associated gear (such as ammunition or optics) that is used to kill or injure a human being or to damage property.
In short, the gun industry should be held to the strictest standards of legal accountability available for the design and marketing to civilians of military sniper rifles, as detailed in this report.
Ban the Sale of Armor-Piercing Ammunition
Military surplus armor-piercing (AP) and armor-piercing incendiary (API) ammunition for .50 sniper rifles is widely and readily available. Although Congress has banned the manufacture of some armor-piercing ammunition, those restrictions apply only to handgun ammunition. The existing ban on armor-piercing ammunition should be updated and expanded to cover all AP and API ammunition. This would most effectively be accomplished through the promulgation of a performance standard in which ammunition is tested for its ability to penetrate bullet-resistant vests, ballistic glass, and armor,ee as opposed to the existing standard based on the bullet’s content.
Enact Comprehensive Regulation of the Gun Industry
Taken together, the foregoing recommendations would significantly reduce the severe and immediate threat that heavy and intermediate civilian sniper rifles pose to public safety and national security. But on a broader level, the marketing of 50 caliber sniper rifles to civilians simply highlights the chronic problems that stem from the lack of comprehensive regulation of the firearms industry.
As the gun industry markets each new deadly innovation, public policy typically responds on a reactive, piecemeal basis. This must change if we are to keep up with the industry’s consistent and deadly ingenuity. The gun industry must be subject to the same type of regulation that already applies to virtually every other industry in America. The gun industry is currently exempt from even the most basic consumer health and safety laws.
Congress should act on legislation introduced by Senator Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) and Representative Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), the Firearms Safety and Consumer Protection Act. The bill would vest the Department of the Treasury with strong consumer protection authority to regulate the design, manufacture, and distribution of firearms and ammunition. The agency would be empowered to take the steps necessary to protect the public from unreasonable risk of injury resulting from the use of firearms or firearm products. The agency would be able to set minimum safety standards for firearms and ammunition, issue recalls, mandate safety warnings and, in extreme circumstances, ban certain models or classes of weapons.
This legislation would end the gun industry’s deadly immunity from regulation and permit the Department of the Treasury to respond immediately to new threats to public safety such as sniper rifles.
ee) The current definition of armor-piercing ammunition is based on the materials employed in the construction of the projectile and the relative weight of the projectile jacket. See 18 U.S.C. ï¿½ 921 (a)(17)(B) and (C).