Posted on October 28, 2013
Considered among the most destructive weapons legally available to civilians in the United States, 50 caliber rifles are military firearms, used by armed forces across the globe, that combine long range, accuracy, and massive power.1
A 50 caliber rifle can hit a target accurately from distances of 1,000 to 2,000 yards, depending on the skill of the shooter, and can reach targets at a longer range, sacrificing accuracy.2 Designed for use in urban combat situations, these weapons can penetrate structures and destroy or disable light armored vehicles, radar dishes, helicopters, stationary and taxiing airplanes, and other “high-value” military targets.3
Despite their deadly power, or perhaps because of it, 50 caliber rifles are proliferating on the civilian market. Because they are considered long guns, however, they are subject to less regulation than handguns.4 In fact, under federal law and the laws of nearly all states, any 18-year-old who passes a background check may purchase a 50 caliber rifle.5 Moreover, because federal law and the laws of most states do not require private sellers to conduct background checks, 50 caliber rifles may easily be purchased by criminals at gun shows and elsewhere.
Federal law enforcement officials have identified cases of criminal use of 50 caliber rifles “with a nexus to terrorism, outlaw motorcycle gangs, international and domestic drug trafficking, and violent crime.”6 Fifty caliber rifles sold in the United States have also been identified as one of the “guns of choice” of Mexican drug cartels, and have been used “to assassinate Mexican police and other government officials traveling in armored vehicles.”7
A 2007 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recommended that Congress ban 50 caliber sniper rifles.8 Additionally, 85% of Americans support laws restricting the sale of 50 caliber rifles.9
The destructive power of the 50 caliber rifle can be magnified by the use of certain types of ammunition that are legal under federal law (although banned in some states). In addition to the standard “ball” round of 50 caliber ammunition, armor-piercing,10 incendiary, and combination armor-piercing and incendiary ammunition for 50 caliber rifles can significantly enhance their destructive capacity,11 particularly against chemical and industrial facilities12 and civil aviation targets.13
Although most of the data regarding 50 caliber firearms relates to rifles, the industry also has introduced 50 caliber handguns. Smith & Wesson, for example, manufactures a handgun that can fire a 50 caliber round and that may be capable of penetrating the highest grade of concealable body armor typically worn by law enforcement officers.14
California and the District of Columbia ban 50 caliber rifles. Connecticut bans a single model of 50 caliber rifle. Maryland imposes various regulations on transfers of 50 caliber rifles. No state bans 50 caliber handguns.
For laws banning fifty caliber cartridges, see our summary on Ammunition Regulations.
Description of State Laws Banning and/or Regulating 50 Caliber Rifles
a. Prohibited Activities: California’s 50 caliber ban prohibits a wide range of activities; it applies to manufacture, possession, distribution, and importation of 50 caliber rifles, as well as sale, offering for sale, and transfer.15
b. Definition of Banned Weapon: California’s ban on 50 caliber rifles defines the banned weapons based on the type of cartridge they are capable of firing. California’s ban prohibits “50 caliber BMG rifles” which are defined as any “center fire rifle that can fire a .50 BMG cartridge.” A BMG cartridge is then defined in detail based on specific length and diameter.16
c. Grandfathering: The California law provides that in order to retain possession of a 50 caliber rifle, any person who lawfully possessed such a weapon prior to January 1, 2005 must have registered it no later than April 30, 2006.17 See our summary on the Registration of Firearms for features of comprehensive registration laws.
2. District of Columbia: The District deems .50 BMG rifles unregisterable, thereby prohibiting the possession, sale or other transfer of these firearms.18 The District does not allow the continued possession of such rifles possessed prior to the ban’s enactment.
3. Connecticut: Connecticut bans the possession, distribution, importation, transportation, and keeping or offering for sale of the “Barrett Light-Fifty model 82A1,” which is included in the state’s definition of assault weapon.19 Connecticut required the registration of assault weapons owned prior to the ban’s enactment.20
4. Maryland: Maryland is the only other state that in some manner regulates the 50 caliber rifle, including the “Barrett light .50 cal. semi-auto” in the list of assault weapons defined as “regulated firearms.” Transfers of regulated firearms are subject to enhanced background checks, minimum age restrictions and waiting periods. Moreover, firearms dealers and private/secondary sellers must comply with additional regulations when transferring a regulated firearm, and purchasers are limited to the purchase of one regulated firearm per month.21
SELECTED LOCAL LAW
San Francisco, California
An ordinance adopted by the City and County of San Francisco, California in 2004 prohibits the sale or transfer of any “50 caliber firearm or 50 caliber cartridge.” “50 caliber firearm” is defined as any firearm capable of firing a center-fire 50 caliber cartridge, and includes 50 caliber handguns. The ordinance has been superseded by state law with respect to 50 caliber rifles, but continues in effect with respect to 50 caliber handguns and cartridges.22
The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered. A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.
- Ban applies to 50 caliber rifles (California, District of Columbia), 50 caliber handguns, and 50 caliber cartridges (San Francisco)
- Prohibited activities include possession, sale, purchase, transfer, loan, pledge, transportation, distribution, importation, and manufacture of 50 caliber rifles (California bans manufacture, possession, distribution, importation, sale, offering for sale, and transfer)
- Pre-ban weapons are not grandfathered and instead are to be rendered inoperable or removed from the jurisdiction (District of Columbia)
- Alternatively, if pre-ban firearms are grandfathered, there is a registration mechanism for grandfathered firearms, with strict limits on transferability, use and storage of pre-ban weapons23 (California)
- Violence Policy Center, 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 7-12 (Oct. 2001), at http://www.vpc.org/graphics/rooftop.pdf. [↩]
- Id. at 8. [↩]
- Violence Policy Center, Clear and Present Danger: National Security Experts Warn About the Danger of Unrestricted Sales of 50 Caliber Anti-Armor Sniper Rifles to Civilians (July 2005), at http://www.vpc.org/studies/50danger.pdf. [↩]
- Id. at 5; Violence Policy Center, One Shot, One Kill: Civilian Sales of Military Sniper Rifles 41-42 (May 1999), at http://www.vpc.org/graphics/snipcov2.pdf; Voting from the Rooftops, supra note 1, at 62-68. [↩]
- 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(1), (c)(1). By contrast, federally licensed dealers can only sell or transfer handguns to persons age 21 or older. 18 U.S.C. § 922(x)(1), (3), (5). [↩]
- Office of Special Investigations, U.S. General Accounting Office, Weaponry: Availability of .50 Caliber Semiautomatic Rifles 6-7 (June 30, 1999), at http://www.gao.gov/assets/90/88915.pdf. See also Violence Policy Center, Criminal Use of the 50 Caliber Sniper Rifle Fact Sheet (2013), at http://www.vpc.org/snipercrime.htm (last visited July 8, 2013). [↩]
- Violence Policy Center, Iron River: Gun Violence and Illegal Firearms Trafficking on the U.S.-Mexico Border 20 (Apr. 2009), at http://www.vpc.org/studies/ironriver.pdf. See Colby Goodman & Michel Marizco, U.S. Firearms Trafficking to Mexico: New Data and Insights Illuminate Key Trends and Challenges, in Shared Responsibility: U.S.-Mexico Policy Options for Confronting Organized Crime 187 (Eric L. Olson, David A. Shirk & Andrew Selee eds., 2010), at http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/Shared%20Responsibility%2012.22.10.pdf. [↩]
- International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Taking a Stand: Reducing Gun Violence in Our Communities 27 (Sept. 2007), at https://www.theiacp.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=%2Fs0LiOkJK5Q%3D&tabid=87. [↩]
- Tom W. Smith, National Opinion Research Center (NORC)/University of Chicago, Public Attitudes Towards the Regulation of Firearms 3 (Mar. 2007) (discussing the results of the “2006 General Social Survey” NORC/University of Chicago), at http://www.icpgv.org/pdf/NORCPoll.pdf. [↩]
- For additional information on armor-piercing ammunition, see the section on Ammunition Regulation. [↩]
- Voting From the Rooftops, supra note 1, at 12-20. [↩]
- See generally Violence Policy Center, Sitting Ducks: The Threat to the Chemical and Refinery Industry from 50 Caliber Sniper Rifles (Aug. 2002), at http://www.vpc.org/studies/duckcont.htm. [↩]
- See generally Violence Policy Center, Just Like Bird Hunting: The Threat to Civil Aviation From 50 Caliber Sniper Rifles (Jan. 2003), at http://www.vpc.org/graphics/birdhuntingstudy.PDF. [↩]
- Violence Policy Center, Vest Buster: The .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum – The Gun Industry’s Latest Challenge to Law Enforcement Body Armor 19 (June 2004), at http://www.vpc.org/graphics/S&W500%20final.pdf. [↩]
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 16790, 30500-31115. California’s ban on 50 caliber rifles was adopted after a number of local cities and counties in California imposed local bans on these weapons. See, e.g., Los Angeles, Cal., Municipal Code ch. V, art. 5, § 55.18; San Francisco, Cal., Police Code art. 9, § 613.10-1. [↩]
- Under the definition of “destructive device,” California also bans the possession, sale, offer for sale, and knowing transportation of incendiary and tracer ammunition that is equal to or less than .60 caliber, for use in rifles, including .50 caliber rifles. Cal. Penal Code §§ 16460, 18710, 18730. Connecticut also bans distribution, transportation, importation, sale and transfer of armor piercing or incendiary 50 caliber bullets. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53-202l. [↩]
- Registration is critical to any law that exempts pre-ban weapons. Without such a provision, it would be nearly impossible to enforce a possession ban because there would be no way to determine the date an individual acquired possession of a banned weapon. [↩]
- D.C. Code Ann. §§ 7-2502.02(a)(7), 7-2505.01, 7-2505.02(a), (c). [↩]
- Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53-202a(1)(A)(i). [↩]
- Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 53-202a – 53-202o. [↩]
- Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety §§ 5-101(r)(2)(ix), 5-102 – 5-143. [↩]
- San Francisco, Cal., Police Code art. 9 § 613.10-1. [↩]
- See our summary on the Registration of Firearms for features of comprehensive registration laws. The most comprehensive system of regulating the purchase, possession and ownership of firearms combines registration of firearms with licensing of gun owners. Additional information on licensing of firearm owners is contained in our summary on Licensing Gun Owners & Purchasers. [↩]