by Steve Bonta
Surging firearms sales after 9-11 briefly disarmed gun control efforts, but anti-gun lobbyists are now exploiting fears of terrorism to renew their attacks on the Second Amendment.
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In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, many Americans, shocked by the fact that men armed with simple box-cutters had managed to cow entire planeloads of unarmed passengers and flight crews, began purchasing firearms in record numbers. Increased interest in firearms for self-defense prompted some analysts to declare gun control dead. Pro-gun commentator Michael S. Brown, for example, exulted that "gun shops are crowded with liberals seeking security in gun ownership." But reports of gun control’s demise are premature, to say the least. For while supporters of Second Amendment-protected rights celebrate the newfound public interest in firearms ownership, the anti-gun lobby intends to exploit fears of terrorism, and has quietly been preparing an ambitious new assault on the Second Amendment on many different fronts.
On October 7, 2001, the Violence Policy Center (VPC), an influential anti-gun lobby group, released a 100-page, alarmist screed entitled 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. The report’s provocative cover sets the tone for the ridiculously biased study. It sports a photo of a target shooter wearing a shirt with the inscription, "When all else fails, vote from the rooftops." Fifty caliber rifles are terrorist weapons, the document asserts, and those who own and use them are part of a growing "sniper culture" in the United States who may soon unleash a wave of assassination and sabotage with their "superguns." The ludicrously exaggerated account ascribes to .50 caliber rifles just about every known military capability short of sinking the U.S. Sixth Fleet. The report also accuses rifle manufacturers of knowingly selling weapons to terrorists and criminals. For example, the report claims that Barrett .50 caliber rifles were sold to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, as well as to "other terrorist and fringe groups" like the Church Universal and Triumphant and David Koresh’s Branch Davidians.
Bearing Down on Barrett
Fifty caliber rifles are indeed sophisticated weapons, and have proven effective for both military and police use. And they’re priced accordingly: The best models, like the Barrett M82A1 and the Accuracy International AW50, retail for thousands of dollars.
But the manufacturers of .50 caliber rifles aren’t the shady, cynical outfitters of terrorists and criminals that the VPC alleges them to be. Ronnie Barrett, president and founder of Barrett Rifles of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for instance, is a former commercial photographer with no formal background either in engineering or in gunsmithing. In the great tradition of originality and inventiveness typical of the history of American firearms, Mr. Barrett designed and built his first .50 caliber rifle from scratch at age 26. Before long, he was building and selling his gun for friends, and soon decided to turn it into a full-fledged business. His invention eventually became the M82A1 — named after the year the original design was patented — one of the best-designed and most popular semiautomatic .50 caliber rifles in production. As for allegations in Voting from the Rooftops that some Barrett .50 caliber rifles were sold to terrorists, the VPC’s libelous report conveniently neglects to mention that the guns referred to were sold in the late 1980s to the U.S.-supported Afghan mujahideen forces — under the auspices of the United States government!
After Voting from the Rooftops was released, the ATF paid a visit to Barrett Firearms, and found them in full compliance with all existing laws and regulations. Mr. Barrett told The New American that the recent visit was cordial, and that Barrett Rifles has always complied with all gun laws and regulations and has always had a good relationship with local ATF officials.
The VPC-promoted term "sniper rifle," like so many media buzzwords created by the anti-gun lobby, is yet another example of what Fifty Caliber Shooter’s Policy Institute (FCSPI) Chairman John Burtt calls "boogeyman politics." Mr. Burtt, a retired policeman, told The New American that .50 caliber rifles are in fact "target rifles," and that the roughly 3,200 members of the Fifty Caliber Shooter’s Association (FCSA) are target-shooting enthusiasts and competitors. Until recently, Mr. Burtt admitted, he wasn’t worried about the government taking away his .50 caliber rifle. But because of the VPC’s anti-"sniper rifle" campaign, he and other .50 caliber enthusiasts have become acutely aware of the growing threat. For one thing, draconian "assault weapon" laws in some states, like California, have already outlawed ownership of semiautomatic .50 caliber rifles. For another, the September 11th terrorist attacks — all initial appearances to the contrary — have given the VPC, and other enemies of the Second Amendment, a new political impetus.
After casting .50 caliber rifles in the worst possible light and smearing thousands of responsible, law-abiding firearms owners, Voting from the Rooftops offers the inevitable policy recommendations:
* "Add 50 caliber sniper rifles to 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..., 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."
* "Improve reporting and record-keeping requirements."
* "Use the civil justice system to hold manufacturers accountable.... [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."
* "Ban the sale of armor-piercing ammunition."
* "Enact comprehensive regulation of the gun industry.... The gun industry must be subject to the same type of regulation that already applies to virtually every other industry in America.... [The Department of the Treasury should] 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."
And, according to the VPC, all of the above is now necessary to reduce the risk of terrorism!
Within days after the release of Voting from the Rooftops, Representatives Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.), both longtime Second Amendment foes, swung into action. In a public statement on October 11th of last year, Congressman Waxman parroted the claims made in Voting, and promised to reintroduce legislation regulating .50 caliber rifles in the same way as machine guns, grenade launchers, and other weapons subject to federal licensing. In a separate letter to Tom Ridge, head of the Office of Homeland Security, Waxman indicated that such regulatory restrictions would be the "minimum" acceptable outcome of such legislation, and urged that Ridge "take action to remedy" this "serious terrorist threat." Specifically, Waxman urged Ridge to "halt the export of fifty caliber weapons to foreign nationals" and to support legislation requiring "that persons who buy or possess fifty caliber weapons obtain federal licenses." On October 30th, Congressman Blagojevich, with Congressman Waxman as co-sponsor, introduced H.R. 3182 in the House, to "regulate certain 50 caliber sniper weapons in the same manner as machine guns and other firearms." Falsely claiming 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," the bill would effectively outlaw ownership or commercial transfer of any .50 caliber rifle, except under stringent regulatory and reporting conditions. An earlier Senate bill, S. 505, introduced in March by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), with Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) as co-sponsors, contains almost identical provisions. Both bills define "50 caliber sniper weapon" as "a rifle capable of firing a center-fire cartridge in 50 caliber, .50 BMG caliber, any other variant of 50 caliber, or any metric equivalent of such calibers."
But the .50 caliber isn’t the only "sniper rifle" the gun grabbers ultimately intend to target. An earlier document released by the VPC, One Shot, One Kill, makes the real agenda of the gun control lobby crystal clear: They, along with their fellow travelers in Congress, plan to foment fears of gun-toting terrorists in order to ban a wide array of larger-caliber rifles. In an appendix entitled "Defining Sniper Rifles," One Shot, One Kill indicts not only weapons termed "sniper rifles" by the firearms industry itself, but also weapons "call[ed] by a euphemism such as ‘tactical rifle,’ but [having] essentially the same design features and accessories as, or [are] simply a production derivative of, a recognized sniper rifle." Such design features supposedly include "trigger mechanisms … designed to operate extraordinarily smoothly" and rifle barrels "heavier and fatter than the usual sporting rifle barrel." As for calibers used by "sniper rifles," One Shot, One Kill includes the .338 Lapua Magnum, the 7.62 mm, the .308 Winchester, the .243 Winchester, the .30-06, the .223 and .300 Winchester Magnum, the aforementioned .50 caliber, and others. Another appendix, "Gallery of Sniper Rifles," lists rifles manufactured by familiar names like Armalite, Garand, Remington, Robar, Savage, and SIG.
Voting from the Rooftops picks up where One Shot, One Kill left off. While focusing on .50 caliber rifles, the document leaves no doubt of the anti-gun lobby’s longer-term objectives. The authors of Voting note that "[the] boom in civilian sales of 50 caliber sniper rifles is part of the broader success in military sniper rifle marketing by the gun industry that the VPC identified in its first report [One Shot, One Kill]. The editor of the fan magazine Gun World also wrote in August 2001 about the trend in sales of police sniper rifles, which are generally in the 30 caliber range." Later, the document warns that "the entrepreneurs who powered the 50 caliber wave are already working on new designs. One of these designs is the .408 Cheyenne Tactical.... [Other] manufacturers may choose … the .338 Lapua Magnum." But the clincher is carefully inserted into the document’s recommendation to "use the civil justice system to hold manufacturers accountable": "[L]itigation 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 other words, given the political difficulty in enacting selective or comprehensive bans on higher-caliber rifles, the VPC and its allies will use the courts to wage war on any class of gun that could be defined under the VPC’s expansive terminology as a "sniper rifle." The overall campaign against higher-caliber rifles will be prosecuted in the name of denying "sniper weapons" to terrorists and criminals, and will use the War on Terrorism as rhetorical cover.
Second Amendment abolitionists want to ban more than just higher-caliber rifles. Last November, the VPC began circulating information purporting to show how "lax" American gun laws are exploited by terrorists wishing to acquire both weapons and the training to use them. In particular, the VPC press releases gleefully drew attention to a widely circulated document on the Web, "How can I Train Myself for Jihad." The document does indeed encourage would-be terrorists to obtain firearms in countries like the USA, where gun ownership is legal. It also recommends taking "firearms courses available to the public in USA" and obtaining military-style weapons as good training for jihad. However, "How can I Train Myself for Jihad" also goes into considerable detail about the need for martial-arts training and outdoor and survival skills — as well as military training via publicly available military field manuals "on all topics from light weapons, tanks and artillery to mines, military fieldcraft and combat medicine" published by the U.S. Army. According to the hysterical reasoning of the VPC and like-minded groups, therefore, a more comprehensive approach to preventing terrorism would restrict access not only to firearms, but also to martial arts and survival training, and to all documents on military training.
Nevertheless, on December 19th of last year, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence (formerly Handgun Control, Inc.) followed the VPC’s lead and published what their press release called a "comprehensive report on terrorism and guns detail[ing] how terrorists exploit weak gun laws to amass firearms." According to Michael D. Barnes, president of the Brady Center:
This report makes one thing crystal clear: terrorists and guns go together.... For terrorists around the world, the United States is the Great Gun Bazaar.... Ensuring true "homeland security" means combating the threat of terrorism in all its possible forms, with all its potential weapons — especially guns.... [S]tronger gun laws [are] an essential part of a comprehensive homeland security program. [Emphasis in original.]
The Brady Center’s latest anti-gun agitprop piece, entitled Guns and Terror: How Terrorists Exploit our Weak Gun Laws, opens with a quote from President George W. Bush’s November 10, 2001 address to the United Nations: "We have a responsibility to deny weapons to terrorists and to actively prevent private citizens from providing them." The report then spends nearly 30 pages documenting the undeniable fact that Bad People sometimes use firearms to hurt Good People. There’s a new twist, though: Bad People are now "terrorists," and gun controls are necessary to make sure terrorists don’t acquire guns to use against us. Guns and Terror goes to exhaustive lengths to show the connection between guns and terrorist activity in the United States. One example cited is Pakistani national Mir Aimal Kasi, who used an "AK-47 clone" in a 1993 multiple shooting at CIA headquarters. Another is Ali Abu Kamal, a Palestinian national from Gaza, who used a Beretta .380 semi-automatic pistol to shoot seven people on the Empire State Building observation deck in 1996. Then there’s Rashid Baz, a Lebanese immigrant, who opened fire on a van full of Hasidic students crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994. Guns and Terror also describes Al Fajr Trading company, an Atlanta dealer in Egyptian goods that supplied firearms to Muslim gangs in the New York City area. Among their clientele was the ring associated with Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, which was implicated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
The authors of Guns and Terror either do not see, or willfully ignore, the obvious lesson from accounts like these: What is needed is not reform of gun laws but of immigration controls. As we have documented in many previous issues of The New American, our feckless, see-no-evil immigration policies have allowed the likes of Mir Aimal Kasi and Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman to enter the United States in the first place. That terrorists can come to the United States and acquire firearms is reason to enact not more gun-control legislation, but rational immigration controls that will keep terrorists off American soil completely.
The Brady Center, however, isn’t about to let common sense stand in the way of what it obviously regards as a perfect opportunity to advance its agenda. Guns and Terror proposes a veritable smorgasbord of gun control proposals, many of which have been under discussion for some time. These proposals — which, if enacted, would effectively be a death knell for the Second Amendment — include the following:
* "Require complete criminal background checks for all gun sales, including all gun show sales.... Congress should reinstate the waiting period in effect during the first five years of the Brady Law … to enhance the effectiveness of blocking gun sales to terrorists and other dangerous persons."
* "Retain federal background check records, allow reasonable access to those records by federal law enforcement and repeal existing statutory restrictions on gun sale record keeping."
* "Congress should limit large-volume gun purchases to curb trafficking of guns to terrorists and criminals. Congress should enact a uniform federal law preventing the sale of more than one handgun per month to an individual buyer.... [S]tate laws are not the ultimate answer because traffickers will simply migrate to states with weaker laws."
* "Congress should repeal the provisions of the McClure-Volkmer Act that weaken ATF’s enforcement powers against corrupt gun dealers.... This shameful statute limits the ATF’s dealer inspections, makes it difficult to revoke dealer licenses and imposes other restrictions on ATF’s ability to enforce the law."
* "Congress should permanently reauthorize the assault weapon ban and strengthen it. The existing assault weapon ban expires in 2004. Congress must … reauthorize it on a permanent basis.... [T]he statute should be amended to ban the future sale of ‘grandfathered’ assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines."
* "Congress should close the ‘parts kit’ loophole. Anthrax is not the only weapon sent through the mail. Congress must close the loophole that allows gun makers to evade federal regulation and sell untraceable assault weapon kits that terrorists and other criminals can purchase by mail and assemble at home. An assault weapon without a serial number is a terrorist’s dream."
There you have it, from the most influential and dangerous gun-control advocacy group around: In the name of "fighting terrorism," we must now require federal background checks on all gun sales, including those between private individuals; create a de facto national registry of gun owners to be used for the purposes of law enforcement; limit the number of guns private citizens can purchase; give the ATF practically unlimited powers of search, seizure, and harassment; strengthen and make permanent the "assault weapons" ban; and make the manufacture and sale of mail-order guns or gun part kits illegal.
As with Voting from the Rooftops and the "sniper rifle" charade, so with Guns and Terror: would-be gun abolitionists on Capitol Hill are paying attention. Citing the Brady Center report, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced on December 20, 2001 that she intends to introduce legislation to impose California’s strict standards nationwide. Senator Feinstein promised that her legislation would close the so-called "loophole" allowing firearms to be bought and sold privately, at gun shows, and at flea markets, without federal background checks. Feinstein also announced that she "intend[s] to hold a hearing in the Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Government Information early next year  on [the Brady Center report Guns and Violence], which shows it is very easy for terrorists to purchase firearms in this nation." Senator Feinstein’s office confirmed to The New American that a Senate hearing on Guns and Terror is planned for the first quarter of 2002.
Other policy recommendations in Guns and Terror are already under consideration on Capitol Hill. On December 7th, Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced S. 1788, the "Use NICS [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] in Terrorist Investigations Act," to give the FBI, ATF, and other federal law enforcement agencies access to NICS records in criminal investigations. The Schumer bill was in part a reaction to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s earlier refusal to give the FBI access to NICS records for the purposes of the terrorism investigation. By allowing access to previously off-limits gun purchase records, Schumer’s bill would remove any shred of pretense that records of "background checks" are anything but a national database of gun owners.
Also in the pipeline is S. 406, Senator Robert Torricelli’s (D-N.J.) "Stop Gun Trafficking Act of 2001" and its House equivalent, H.R. 998, introduced by Representative Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.). Both bills, introduced early last year, are intended to "reduce gun trafficking by prohibiting bulk purchases of handguns" — specifically, to prohibit private citizens from purchasing more than one handgun during a thirty-day period.
Gun control in America is most decidedly not a dead issue. Those in Washington harboring an irrational, pathological hatred of firearms and private firearms ownership continue their quest to nullify Second Amendment-protected rights. As the propaganda efforts of the VPC and the Brady Center — and their immediate results on Capitol Hill — attest, the anti-gun lobby is planning to cynically exploit the events of September 11th to push an already onerous gun control regime to unprecedented new levels. We may see, in the very near future, a massive new propaganda campaign in the mass media against "sniper rifles," the "gun show loophole," and possibly a range of other agenda items, all justified in the name of fighting terrorism. The time for concerned citizens to be aware of the threat is not when "sniper rifles" and the labeling of gun owners as "potential terrorists" have become household platitudes. American gun owners must realize that the war on terrorism, because of its potential duration as well as its propaganda value, is an unprecedented opportunity for the enemies of the right to keep and bear arms. And by every indication, it’s an opportunity they intend to exploit.