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One Shot, One Kill

Civilian Sales of Military Sniper Rifles

Executive Summary

This is the executive summary of the May 1999 Violence Policy Center study One Shot, One Kill: Civilian Sales of Military Sniper Rifles. For information on how to order a hard copy of the full study, please return to the publications page.

For at least the last two decades, the firearms industry has introduced progressively more lethal weapons for sale in the United States. Today, another deadly innovation, perhaps more lethal than any of its predecessors, is gaining prominence in the civilian marketplace: the military sniper rifle. An extremely powerful weapon, the sniper rifle uses high-caliber ammunition at distances averaging between 400 and 1,700 yards.

The destructive power of a sniper rifle firing 50 caliber rounds is difficult to overstate. John L. Plaster, author of The Ultimate Sniper�a military and police training manual� offers the following description of 50 caliber performance: "Here's a bullet that even at 1� miles crashes into a target with more energy than Dirty Harry's famous .44 Magnum at point-blank."

The sniper rifle is truly a military weapon, fielded by armies in conflicts around the world. In the 1991 Gulf War, United States armed forces used 50 caliber sniper rifles to destroy Iraqi light armored vehicles, missiles, and artillery. In the 1989 invasion of Panama, they were reportedly used to disable aircraft belonging to Manuel Noriega. Jane's International Defense Review, a military journal, concludes that "from an operational standpoint, the closest parallel weapon to a 0.50-calibre rifle is probably the 60mm mortar."

These same military armaments�designed and sold for the express purpose of killing people and disabling key command and control outposts�are now freely available across America's gun shop counters. As a result, this ideal tool for assassination and destruction is now easily accessible to terrorists, criminals, and the mentally unstable.

The marketing of sniper rifles illustrates a calculated decision by the gun industry to sell instruments of war�with reckless disregard for the inevitable consequences. Gun manufacturers use the sniper rifle's military pedigree and destructive potential as positive elements in their promotion of the weapon to civilian buyers. The makers of semiautomatic Barrett rifles enthusiastically advertise their product as "the most widely used .50 caliber by military organizations around the world...successfully used against a large variety of targets, often at staggering ranges."

Accompanying the marketing of sniper rifles has been a rapid proliferation of books and videos about snipers and sniping. Books with titles such as Stalk and Kill: The Sniper Experience and Marine Sniper: 93 Confirmed Kills compete with sniper videos promising: "The Marine Sniper must be able to hit a stationary target at 1000 yards with one round. Can you do it? Learn the secrets." This booming cult of the sniper centers itself around a firearm built and designed to fulfill the sniper's informal motto: "One shot, one kill."

This report documents the dangers posed by the civilian sale of military sniper rifles by�

  • Explaining what a sniper rifle is and illustrating its distinctly lethal and dangerous capabilities.

  • Exploring the gun industry's growing efforts to market sniper rifles to civilian gun buyers and the resultant subculture of sniper enthusiasts.

  • Discussing selected high-profile criminal instances where these weapons have been employed.

  • Proposing public policy responses to this serious threat to American national security.

Sniper rifles are radically different from standard hunting rifles. They are designed and manufactured for use in killing human beings at more than five times the range hunters shoot deer, and to destroy "materiel" targets such as light armored vehicles and aircraft at distances of more than a mile. The three characteristics and capabilities that combine to signify a sniper rifle are detailed below.

Accuracy: The sniper's goal is to hit his human target with a precision summed up in the phrase, "One shot, one kill." Police snipers need the capability to hit the junction of the brain and brain stem at extended distances. Hitting and destroying this point at the back of the human head with a single bullet causes the person to instantly and completely collapse without reflex. Snipers call this spot "the apricot."

Range: Sniper rifles can be used with great accuracy against targets at much longer distances than ordinary hunting or sporting rifles. The longest confirmed sniper kill of the Gulf War was reported to have been made by a Barrett Model 82A1 sniper rifle at a range of 1,800 meters�nearly 2,000 yards, or almost 10 times a deer hunter's maximum effective range. Numerous engagements with large, 50 caliber guns during the war took place at 1,600 meters (about 1,750 yards). From the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, this range would allow accurate firing as far as the Smithsonian Metro station on the Mall.

Power: The most destructive rounds fired by sniper rifles are 50 caliber�the largest round of ammunition generally available to civilians. The extraordinary power and range of the 50 caliber "heavies" create a whole new order of threat that is a source of concern for domestic law enforcement authorities. These rounds can knock down aircraft�including helicopters�and punch through concrete block, armored vehicles, and other standard materials relied upon for executive protection.

The accuracy, range, and power of a sniper rifle present a grave danger if used by a determined criminal or a deranged gunman, and a serious threat to national security in the hands of a terrorist. Yet, these very real hazards appear to be of no concern to the American firearms industry.

Robert Barrkman, president of .50 sniper rifle manufacturer Robar, revealed in a published interview that the proliferation of sniper weapons is one of the few growth areas that exist for small-arms makers. As a result, the gun industry has stimulated a demand for sniper rifles�with no conceivable sporting purpose�as part of its campaign to resell a saturated market.

Not surprisingly, the gun industry recognizes that words which evoke images of killing human beings, like "sniper," can attract criticism�and might even have the legal effect of triggering federal import restrictions. It therefore has invented euphemistic labels, such as "tactical rifle," which are well understood within the gun culture as "wink and nod" terms for true sniper rifles.

Yet the cultural context in which the gun industry sells sniper rifles often ignores such subterfuge. The sniper subculture glorifies the sniper fantasy, diminishes its human cost, and teaches everything about sniping�from equipment and shooting skills to military and police tactics. The civilian sniper culture is fed by the gun industry, nurtured by a fawning gun press, and disseminated through an array of commercial media enterprises including books, motion pictures, videos, video games, posters, tee shirts and, the world's fastest growing source of information, the Internet.

There is more than enough instructional material available in this sniper subculture to roil troubled minds and teach home-grown terrorists or impressionable juveniles how to use the destructive capabilities of sniper rifles to maximum effect. In particular, this subculture combines two dangerous currents�it has a mordant appeal for unstable personalities, and it offers an ideal environment for terrorism. The following three examples serve as evidence of the misuse of .50 sniper rifles. All three cases involved civilians who purchased the weapons in the United States.

Branch Davidians: David Koresh and his fellow Branch Davidians had several 50 caliber sniper rifles among the weapons in their substantial arsenal. During the 1993 siege at the Waco, Texas compound, FBI agents used armored vehicles to protect against the weapons. This decision was made after four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents were killed in the initial assault.

Anti-Castro Operatives: In 1998, a federal grand jury indicted seven Cuban exiles on charges of plotting to murder Cuban President Fidel Castro with a .50 sniper rifle. The exiles planned to assassinate Castro during a meeting of Latin American heads of state at Isla Margarita, a Venezuelan island resort. The conspirators had previously scouted a hilltop vantage point overlooking the island's airport, from which they allegedly planned to shoot down Castro's airplane or shoot the Cuban leader as he exited the plane.

Irish Republican Army: In 1985, the IRA sent agents to the United States to acquire Barrett sniper rifles for long-range sniping attacks. Although several of the .50 Barretts were intercepted by authorities, an IRA sniper unit reportedly killed its first victim with one of the weapons in August of 1992. Eighteen-year-old Private Paul Turner was shot through his body armor as he stood at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Crossmaglen.

Gun industry excesses, as exemplified by the sniper rifle, can best be controlled by comprehensive regulation of the firearms industry�virtually the only industry now exempt from consumer health and safety laws. In the absence of overall regulation, 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.

  • Bring heavy and intermediate sniper rifles under the control of the National Firearms Act.

  • Evaluate an import ban on sniper rifles.

  • Improve reporting and record-keeping requirements.

  • Use the civil justice system to hold manufacturers accountable.

  • Ban the sale of armor-piercing ammunition.

The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals. The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related death and injury.

All contents � 1999 Violence Policy Center