TCS Daily

60 Minutes, Terrorists and Guns

By John R. Lott - March 25, 2005 12:00 AM

Ironically within a week of Dan Rather retiring from the CBS Evening News because of the fiasco over the 60 Minutes Memogate scandal, this weekend 60 Minutes was at it again, this time stirring up fears about how terrorists would use 50-caliber rifles to attack Americans.

Last year the big fear was over the semi-automatic assault-weapons ban just before it expired. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D., N.Y.) claimed the ban was one of "the most effective measures against terrorism that we have." Of course, nothing happened when the law expired last year. There was nothing unique about the guns that are banned under the law. Though the phrase "assault weapon" conjures up images of the rapid-fire machine guns used by the military, in fact the weapons covered by the ban function the same as any semiautomatic hunting rifle; they fire the exact same bullets with the exact same rapidity and produce the exact same damage as hunting rifles.

Back in the mid-1980s it was the hysteria over "plastic guns" when the Austrian company Glock began exporting pistols to the United States. Labeled as "terrorist specials" by the press, fear spread that their plastic frame and grip would make them invisible to metal detectors. Glocks are now common and there are good reasons they are one of the favorite pistols of American police officers. The "plastic gun" ban did not ban anything since it is not possible to actually build a working plastic gun.

Now it is the 50-caliber rifles' turn, especially with California outlawing the sale of these guns since the beginning of the year. For years gun-control groups have tried to ban 50-caliber rifles because of fears that criminals could use them. Such bans have not been passed -- these guns were simply not suited for crime. Fifty-caliber rifles are big, heavy guns, weighing at least 30 pounds and using a 29-inch barrel. They are also relatively expensive. Models that hold one bullet at a time run nearly $3,000. Semi-automatic versions cost around $7,000. Wealthy target shooters and big-game hunters, not criminals, purchase them. The bottom line is that only one person in the U.S. has been killed with such a gun, and even that one alleged case is debated.

The supposed link to terrorism provides a new possible reason to ban 50-caliber rifles. 60 Minutes darkly warned of ".50-caliber rifles, a gun that can kill someone from over a mile away and even bring down an airplane" and that "the bullets blew right through the steel plate." But the decision to demonize these particular guns and not say .475-caliber hunting rifles is completely arbitrary. The difference in width of these bullets is a trivial .025 inches. What's next? Banning .45-caliber pistols? Instead of protecting people from terrorists or criminals, the whole strategy is to gradually reduce the type of guns that people can own.

Sniper Central, a site for both military snipers and law-enforcement sharpshooters, claims that "For military extreme long-range anti-personnel purposes, the .338 Lapua is king. Even the .50BMG falls short. (Due to accuracy problems with current ammo)." The .338 Lapua round simply has what is called a better bullet coefficient, it produces less drag as it travels through the air.

With a 50-caliber rifle it is possible for an extremely lucky and skilled marksman to hit a target at 1,800 meters (versus 1,500 meters plus for the .338 Lapua), though most marksmen say that the effective range for any of these guns is around 1,000 meters. The reason is simple: to get these maximum distances, you can't fire directly at the target but must arch the shot at a 45 degree angle. Bringing down an airplane with a semi-automatic rifle is improbable.

Fighting terrorism is a noble cause, but the laws we pass must have some real link to solving the problem. As Dan Rather would say: "Courage."

John Lott Jr, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is author of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press, 2000) and "The Bias Against Guns" (Regnery, 2003).

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