Voting From the Rooftops
How the Gun Industry Armed Osama bin Laden, Other Foreign and Domestic Terrorists, and Common Criminals with 50 Caliber Sniper Rifles
Section Two: The Threats
"It's a fun toy, a nice collectible. This is not something a drug lord or a bank robber is going to want to use. It's not easy to conceal."
"A toy for a big boy"—the innocent oddity argument. One line of argument advanced by the gun lobby is that 50 caliber sniper rifles are an innocent oddity, owned by benignly responsible hobbyists and marksmen. Thus, when Ronnie G. Barrett, the founder and owner of Barrett Firearms Manufacturing in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, talks to the civilian press about his sniper rifles, he doesn't talk about their ability to punch through armored cars, shoot down hovering helicopters, and set aircraft and high-octane fuel tanks on fire from 1,000 yards away. Instead, he calls his super gun "a toy for a big boy,"73 and "a fun toy, a nice collectible."74 A recent Forbes magazine article quoted Barrett's description of his civilian market as consisting of "gun collectors and long-range target shooters who fancy `bold weapons that can do bold things.'"75
Barrett's folksy opinions on this putative toy and collectible were seconded by James A. Schmidt, owner of an Arizona ammunition manufacturing company and former vice-president of the Fifty Caliber Shooter's Association (FCSA).j "I don't think it's any different than raising schnauzers or learning how to cook," Schmidt told The Washington Post. "People have their fascinations."76 One of those fascinations illuminates what might be called the "macho variant" of the innocent oddity argument. According to FCSA co-founder Skip Talbott, "Some people just want the biggest thing on the block."77
The innocent oddity argument collapses on both conceptual and factual grounds. Conceptually, the fact that a handful of hobbyists collect a functioning weapon of war with the devastating power of the 50 caliber super gun has little to do with whether or how it should be regulated. For example, under the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA) machine gunsk have been registered, with potential owners undergoing thorough background checks that include fingerprinting and local police sign-off. New production of machine guns for civilian sale has been banned since 1986. Yet machine guns are still legally collected and fired by enthusiasts.l
In any case, the facts asserted by these apologists wither under scrutiny. This section demonstrates that—if 50 caliber sniper rifles are toys for men in states of arrested adolescence or substitutes for raising schnauzers—they are also regularly bought and used by terrorists, drug lords, and ordinary criminals, not as toys, but as killing machines.
Like the "innocent oddity" argument, this specious apology falls apart under conceptual and factual scrutiny.
The VPC does not claim that the principal danger from 50 caliber sniper rifles is likely use in street crime. That niche is amply filled by the proliferation of portable, easily concealed and increasingly powerful handguns—particularly the millions of palm-sized "pocket rockets"—that the gun industry has poured into America in recent decades.n The VPC has argued consistently that, given the 50 caliber sniper rifle's unique capabilities, its main threat is as an "ideal tool for assassination and destruction."80 It is relevant to note that before September 11, 2001, the number of terrorists hijacking four commercial airliners and then deliberately successfully crashing three of them into large buildings was "zero or very close to zero." The dangers of the 50 caliber sniper rifle must be viewed from the sober perspective of that test of catastrophic danger.
In any case, the "facts" claimed by the gun lobby about the potential and actual use of 50 caliber rifles in crime do not hold up. Each of the points that the gun industry and its allies claim make the 50 caliber sniper rifle unsuitable for crime simply are false. These claims are made out of either ignorance or bad faith, because most are refuted by the words of the gun industry itself:
Advocates of unrestricted civilian sale of 50 caliber sniper rifles argue that they are "too heavy" for criminal use. But Ronnie G. Barrett was pictured in Forbes magazine holding the Barrett M82A1 without apparent effort. Barrett literature also says, "The 82A1's light weight makes transportation as easy as walking." The Barrett Model 99, introduced later, weighs 6.5 pounds less than the model shown here.
"I'm not ashamed of what we're doing," a Barrett vice president told the Chattanooga (Tennessee) Times recently. "We sell most of our guns to military customers, or people approved by the government."92
Perhaps "most," but certainly not all of Barrett's sniper rifles have ended up in benign hands. Therein lies an object lesson in the danger of unrestrained civilian sales of weapons of war like 50 caliber rifles. Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda has acquired at least 25 Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifles.93 Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing how many more 50 caliber rifles Al Qaeda has obtained from Barrett or from its many competitors. No one keeps track of them.
Al Qaeda has become a household word since the September 11 terrorist attack—it is Osama bin Laden's terrorist support network. In addition to the catastrophic attacks on the World Trade Center complex and the Pentagon, Al Qaeda's previous attacks include:94
The Sales to Al Qaeda. The evidence that Al Qaeda bought 25 Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifles came to light during the trial of terrorists charged with the American embassy bombings in Africa. (Osama bin Laden was also indicted but has yet to stand trial.) A government witness, Essam al Ridi, testified that he had shipped 25 Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifles to Al Qaeda. The testimony is ambiguous as to the exact date of the transaction, but it appears to have been in either 1988 or 1989.95 (Al Ridi, an Egyptian who became a naturalized U.S. citizen,96 also learned to fly and taught flying in Arlington, Texas, at the now defunct Ed Boardman Aviation School.97) These guns still represent a live threat: firearms in general have a very long useful life, and 50 caliber sniper rifles used in the 1991 Gulf War are still being traded among enthusiasts and fired.98 There is no reason to believe that Al Qaeda's Barrett sniper rifles are not in service, and, wherever they are, they are a threat to Americans, civilians and military personnel alike.
In addition to buying 25 of the Barrett M82A1 50 caliber sniper rifles shown here, Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda bought night vision equipment. Barrett advertising material says "with night vision equipment, the weapon is even more effective under cover of darkness."
There is no evidence yet available about whether Ronnie G. Barrett—in whose name the Barrett federal firearms manufacturing license was held until 1993, when it was switched to Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, Inc.101—knew that the 25 guns were sold to bin Laden's Al Qaeda. Nor do we know whether the guns were sold directly from the factory or through a dealer or dealers. Jane's International Defense Review reported in 1989 that "Barrett will not identify its weapon's purchasers."102 Whether the sale to bin Laden's Al Qaeda was in 1988 or 1989, however, it certainly would have represented a substantial boost to Barrett's fledgling business.q
Sales boost for a fledgling company. According to Barrett production records obtained from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Barrett manufactured a total of 123 rifles in 1988 and 158 in 1989.103 A sale of 25 rifles would thus have represented 20 percent of reported 1988 production, 15 percent of reported 1989 production. Ronnie G. Barrett recently told Forbes magazine that he had "piled up $1.5 million in debt to banks and friends before landing his first government contract—an order from the Swedish Army in 1989,"104 i.e., at about the time of his sales to bin Laden's group. The earliest Barrett sniper rifle price the VPC could find on the public record was $6,600 in 1992.105 Assuming that the rifles sold to bin Laden went for between $6,000 and $6,600 in 1988 or 1989, a sale of 25 rifles would have represented income of $150,000 to $165,000 for the struggling business described in Forbes. According to the magazine, Barrett had sales of $1 million in 1988: if the sales to Al Qaeda were in that year, they would have represented an estimated 15 percent to 16 percent of the company's sales.
A Marine sniper took out these Iraqi armored personnel carriers from a distance of 1,600 meters (1,750 yards) during the 1991 Gulf War. The vehicle on the left is burning, ignited by a Raufoss multipurpose 50 caliber round.
Disturbing Implications for the Future. Two disturbing strands tie this information together. First, Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network have understood the destructive power of the 50 caliber sniper rifle for more than a decade. It would be absurd to think that they have forgotten it. Second, Al Qaeda and bin Laden have been willing to spend whatever money it takes to execute their complicated plots. Significantly, this includes buying civilian aircraft in which to smuggle weapons. Under current U.S. law, there is no way to know whether Al Qaeda bought more 50 caliber sniper rifles, or from whom, or whether bin Laden has sent some or all of the original shipment back into the United States to be used here for assassination and materiel destruction.
Other Terrorist Sales. We do know, however, that at least two Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifles were acquired in the United States by another terrorist organization, the IRA, whose snipers murdered a total of 11 soldiers and policemen in five years.108 According to journalist and author Toby Harnden, two Barretts sold by the company to a firearms dealer on January 27, 1995 were bought by a 37-year-old Cuban living in Cleveland, who passed them on to an unknown Irish man, who shipped them to Ireland. One of those guns was used on February 12, 1997 when British Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick—the last of the IRA sniping victims—was killed instantly at a traffic checkpoint by a single shot fired by a sniper, firing the Barrett from a Mazda 626 hatchback. The round, fired from 120 yards, smashed into Restorick's rifle, broke into three pieces, and perforated blood vessels, causing massive internal bleeding.109
"Blow-back." One final point on the purchase of Barrett sniper rifles by bin Laden concerns a phenomenon know as "blow-back"—the use of a country's exported weapons against its own forces. If the Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifles remained in Afghanistan, where they were allegedly sent after having been bought in the United States, they stand every chance of being used against any American forces sent to that country.
"Americans ought to learn about this phenomenon of blow-back," said William Hartung, director of the World Policy Institute's Arms Trade Resource Center. "Because it is likely to end up killing Americans."110 According to ATF records, Barrett exported more of its sniper rifles in 1998 than it manufactured for domestic sale,111 and Forbes magazine reported recently that exports to 35 foreign countries account for 50 percent of Barrett's sales.112
America's wide open policy regarding firearms leads to another unsettling discovery. Islamic fundamentalists are reported by the British press to have been given training in firearms and explosives at secret locations in the United States, including sniper training.113 A British Member of Parliament has demanded that the results of a Scotland Yard police investigation into the alleged secret training be made public.114
Reports are mixed as to how extensive the training offered by Sakina Security Services, the organization said to be under investigation, has actually been. U.S. law enforcement officials reportedly have not been able to find the described camp.115 But Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, described as a leading fundamentalist and an "Islamic militant," was reported to have told the Scottish Sunday Mail that 400 youths have been sent annually to the program.116
This much is certain: Sakina's Internet web site does indeed offer a course entitled "The Ultimate Jihad Challenge." The site describes the training as "a two-week course in our 1,000-acre state of the art shooting range in the United States," where the "course emphasis is on practical live fire training. You will fire between 2,000 to 3,000 rounds of mixed caliber ammunition." The site advises that "due to the firearms law of the UK all serious firearms training must be done overseas," i.e., in the U.S. where gun laws are more permissive.117
The "Ultimate Jihad Challenge" curriculum includes, among other things, such live fire topics as "tactical ambush," "sniper/counter sniper," "shooting at, thru & from vehicle," and "understanding ammunition capabilities."118 It is not clear whether 50 caliber sniping is included in the instruction. But even if it is not, the sniper training would be useful for potential 50 caliber shooters. In the words of one expert author on sniping, current 50 caliber sniper rifles are "simple to operate and require little training time for trained snipers."119
Sakina's web site also includes a section of "Jihad Links." Among those links is that of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, one of the organizations covered by President George W. Bush's order of September 24, 2001, freezing assets of terrorist organizations and front groups.120 That group is reported to operate terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, and its former leader, Fazlur Rehman Khalil, is said to have been a co-signer of Osama bin Laden's fatwa calling for attacks on the United States and Americans.121
We now turn from documented 50 caliber terrorism to documented 50 caliber crime, and some mixed incidents involving crime and terror.
"Americans fall in love with the cartridge that saved their country," boasts Ronnie G. Barrett.122 Among those who have "fallen in love" with the 50 caliber are international and domestic terrorists, racist hate organizations, militia and other fringe groups, and criminals. Advocates of the unrestricted sale of these military weapons to civilians blink at these instances, ignoring the potential of catastrophic use of the 50 caliber sniper rifles. Instead, these apologists repeat by rote the mantra that there have been no documented instances of criminal use. This is simply not true. It is an example of the dictum that if you tell a lie often enough, people will believe it.
Putting aside the criminal use of 50 caliber sniper rifles abroad by the IRA terror snipers and others, there are numerous documented instances of criminal use of 50 caliber rifles in the United States. The General Accounting Office reported in 1999 that of 27 traces involving the Barrett M82A1 alone, "18 were associated with criminal activity and 3 were not associated with criminal activity. No determination could be made regarding 6 traces."123
Industry advertises armor-piercing capability of 50 caliber rifles
This image from the Internet web site of Watson's Weapon depicts one inch steel plate shot with a .50BMG armor-piercing round.
Perhaps the most well known of the growing list of documented criminal incidents in the United States is the criminal use of Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifles by members of David Koresh's Branch Davidian cult at their compound near Waco, Texas in 1993. The Davidian's arsenal included two Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifles126 as well as armor-piercing ammunition.127 The weapons' ability to penetrate "any tactical vehicle in the FBI's inventory" prompted the agency to request military armored vehicles "to give FBI personnel adequate protection from the .50 caliber rifles" and other more powerful weapons the Branch Davidians might have had.128
Cult members did in fact fire the 50 caliber sniper rifles at federal agents during the initial gun battle on February 28, 1993.129 The VPC has not been able to document whether the guns also were fired later during the final assault.
It is worth noting that Koresh reportedly spent approximately $200,000 amassing an arsenal that, along with the Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifles included 60 M-16 machine guns, 30 AR-15 assault rifles, dozens of pistols, and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition.130 Again, so much for the specious theory that 50 caliber sniper rifles are "too expensive" for criminals. On the contrary, the price has been right for advocates of mass violence like Koresh, bin Laden, the IRA and others who, to use Ronnie G. Barrett's felicitous phrase, want "bold weapons that can do bold things."131
Most Americans would consider shooting at federal agents to be criminal use, notwithstanding the National Rifle Association's smear of federal law enforcement agents as "jack-booted government thugs,"132 or the advice of such gun extremists as convicted felon and radio talk show host G. Gordon Liddy on how to shoot them if they are wearing body armor.133
Ironically, a former SWAT team officer now in prison for murder and suspected also of attempting to rob an armored car gave a jail house testimonial to the Barrett sniper rifle's suitability for use in common crime.
On February 27, 1992, a Wells Fargo armored delivery truck was attacked in a "military style operation" in Chamblee, Georgia by several men using a smoke grenade and a Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifle.134 Two employees were wounded. Although the perpetrators have not yet been successfully prosecuted, authorities have publicly named as suspect Mike Chapel, a former Gwinnett County, Georgia SWAT team leader—now serving a life term for murder. The former officer is also suspected of killing another participant in the robbery.
Among other reasons for suspicion of Chapel: before the robbery he proposed that his SWAT team buy a Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifle for use in the event of a robbery scenario exactly like the one that actually occurred. Chapel discussed the suspicion against him in a prison interview:
On April 28, 1995, Albert Petrosky walked into an Albertson's Grocery Store in suburban Denver, Colorado and gunned down his estranged wife and the store manager. Armed with an L.A.R. Grizzly 50 caliber sniper rifle, an SKS Chinese semi-automatic assault rifle, a .32 revolver, and a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, Petrosky then walked out into the shopping center parking lot, where he exchanged fire with a federal IRS agent passing by and killed Sgt. Timothy Mossbrucker of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department.136
Petrosky, who was known to his friends as "50-cal Al,"137 fired all four weapons, including the 50 caliber rifle, during this murderous rampage.138
After the incident, investigators found three fired 50 caliber cases and eight live 50 caliber rounds outside Petrosky's van, along with four live rounds inside the van.139 Petrosky, a 36-year old auto mechanic, was wanted at the time on a felony warrant, but nevertheless was able to buy the 50 caliber sniper rifle from a gun dealer without a background check because the federal Brady Law did not apply to long guns at that time.140 The dealer who sold him the super gun was later reported to have said, "I feel real bad about what happened."141
It should be noted that Petrosky, who later committed suicide after having been convicted of three counts of murder,142 was not wealthy. He was an auto mechanic who spent a lot of time playing pool, had a criminal record, and was a wanted man. Yet he was able to afford his "toy for a big boy"—once again trashing the specious claim that 50 caliber sniper rifles are "too expensive" for criminals.
When authorities test-fired Petrosky's Grizzly 50 caliber rifle, according to Jefferson County Chief Deputy District Attorney Peter Weir, it blasted through a manhole cover "like a hot knife through butter."143 Barrett Firearms Manufacturing dismisses such evidence of the 50 caliber's power by this sneering red herring, posted on its Internet web site:
Clearly, the point is not the dimension or weight of any given manhole cover, however much Barrett wishes it were. The point is rather the power of the 50 caliber sniper rifle and its round. That power is well documented in—among other things—a U.S. Marine Corps demonstration for the Congress and Barrett's own promotional literature.
It happened that each of Petrosky's victims were killed by other weapons in his arsenal.r However, most people would agree that this incident qualifies as "criminal use" of a 50 caliber sniper rifle.
On March 19, 1998, following an undercover investigation, federal law enforcement officers arrested three members of a radical Michigan group known as the North American Militia. The men were charged with plotting to bomb federal office buildings, destroy highways, utilities and public roads, and assassinate the state's governor, senior U.S. Senator, federal judges and other federal officials.145 All three were ultimately convicted.146
The judge who sentenced these conspirators noted, among other things, that they were "obsessed with guns" and remarked upon the "immaturity" of the ring leader.147 This immature obsession led the plotters to include a 50 caliber sniper rifle among the two dozen weapons—including three illegal machine guns—found in their possession.148
Some might argue that, since federal authorities were able to intervene before anyone was actually killed or any materiel damage was done with the North American Militia's 50 caliber sniper rifle, the gun was not "involved" in criminal behavior. But most people would agree that a 50 caliber sniper rifle bought as part of a criminal conspiracy to assassinate government officials and terrorize qualifies as being involved in criminal activity.
In a similar case in West Virginia, officials found a 50 caliber sniper rifle in the home of a member of the Mountaineer Militia charged in a conspiracy to bomb an FBI office.149
These cases are only the better-documented tip of an iceberg of violent potential the proliferation of 50 caliber sniper rifles represents. There appears to be no organized federal effort to keep track of cases involving 50 caliber sniper rifles. This is understandable in part since the ATF is forbidden from keeping records of gun sales and does not consider tracking individual guns unless they have actually been used in a crime or found in a situation related to a crime.
But here is a list of other instances—culled out by the Violence Policy Center from a variety of sources—showing that, like bad pennies, 50 caliber sniper rifles continually turn up in bad company:
It is a sad fact that no amount of evidence will convince the gun industry or the National Rifle Association that 50 caliber sniper rifles present a clear and present danger to the security of the United States and to the lives of ordinary Americans. Yet, it is clear from the evidence presented in this section that they have regularly been sold to dangerous people and organizations, from Osama bin Laden to the North American Militia, and that they have been used in a number of crimes, from Waco to Denver.
The next section examines the kinds of uses to which terrorists might put the 50 caliber sniper rifles that we now know are in their hands.
j) FCSA is a nonprofit corporation, incorporated in Tennessee, which is also the home state of Barrett Firearms Manufacturing.
k) A machine gun is a "fully automatic" firearm, which means that, so long as the trigger is held down the gun will continue to fire until it expends all of the ammunition in its magazine.
l) For further details, see the discussion of the NFA in Section Five.
m) According to FCSPI, it "represents the political interests of owners, manufacturers and retailers of fifty caliber rifles." "Mar 17th 2001, FCSPI Statement Regarding bill 1405 Submitted in Connecticut," downloaded from Internet web site http://www.50cal-policy.org/news/20010317.html on September 23, 2001.
n) See, Josh Sugarmann, Every Handgun Is Aimed At You: The Case for Banning Handguns (New York, The New Press, 2001), Chapter Five, "Handguns and Crime"; Pocket Rockets: The Gun Industry's Sale of Increased Killing Power (Washington, DC, Violence Policy Center), July 2000.
o) This is not the first debatable expert opinion Schmidt has offered. He testified before a May 3, 1999 Congressional forum chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, saying with respect to SLAP and incendiary rounds, "They're hard on the guns....Why would you want to shoot something that's on fire going down the barrel of a gun you just paid $6,000 for...." This testimony ignited intense criticism from Schmidt's fellow 50 caliber rifle owners on a popular 50 caliber Internet bulletin board. The critics pointed out that Schmidt's "expert" testimony was incorrect, since incendiary bullets ignite only upon striking a target, and tracer rounds do not ignite until after they leave the gun's barrel. In a posted reply, Schmidt wrote that his "fire down the barrel" statement was an effort to "dramatize what the bullet does when fired. At what point it ‘catches on fire' was of little value at the time." Postings in files of Violence Policy Center.
p) "Incorrect range estimation is the biggest cause of long-range misses....If you blow the range estimate, you've most likely blown the shot," writes one sniping expert. But, he says, by skillfully using "a correctly calibrated range finder...you'll be able to estimate range consistently to +/- 5 percent." John L. Plaster, The Ultimate Sniper: An Advanced Training Manual for Military & Police Snipers (Paladin Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1993), pp. 277, 285.
q) Another early Barrett customer at about this time was an official of the Church Universal and Triumphant, a Montana cult, who pled guilty to buying seven Barrett sniper rifles under a false name. According to the GAO, the group bought a total of 10 rifles. "Arrests Unnerve Neighbors of Montana Sect," The New York Times, 9 November 1989, p. B18.
r) Terry Petrosky was hit eight times and store manager Dan Suazo three times by rounds Petrosky fired inside the store with his high-capacity semi-automatic pistol. Sgt. Mossbrucker was struck in the face while still in his patrol car by a round from Petrosky's SKS assault rifle. "Jury hears grim inventory of Petrosky's rampage," Denver Rocky Mountain News, 29 March 1996, p. 23A.
All contents © 2001 Violence Policy Center
All contents © 2001 Violence Policy Center