Posted on May 21, 2012
Click here to see current summaries of all fifty states’ laws in this area.
The following material has been updated from the Law Center’s February 2008 edition of Regulating Guns in America – An Evaluation and Comparative Analysis of Federal, State and Selected Local Gun Laws.
Fifty caliber rifles are military firearms, used by armed forces across the globe, that combine long range, accuracy, and massive power. 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. The 50 caliber rifle is considered one of the most powerful and destructive weapons legally available to civilians in the United States.1 It 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
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,3 incendiary, and combination armor-piercing and incendiary ammunition for 50 caliber rifles can significantly enhance their destructive capacity,4 particularly against chemical and industrial facilities5 and civil aviation targets.6 Federal law enforcement has “identified some examples of criminal misuse of the .50 caliber rifle with a nexus to terrorism, outlaw motorcycle gangs, international and domestic drug trafficking, and violent crime.”7
Despite their deadly power, or possibly because of it, 50 caliber rifles are proliferating on the civilian firearms market, yet are subject to less regulation than handguns.8
Although most of the data regarding 50 caliber firearms relate to rifles, the industry also has introduced 50 caliber handguns. Smith & Wesson now manufactures a handgun which can fire a 50 caliber round and which may be capable of penetrating the highest grade of concealable body armor typically worn by law enforcement officers.9
Summary of Federal Law
Federal law does not ban 50 caliber rifles. Moreover, because 50 caliber rifles are classified as long guns, they can be purchased legally from a federally licensed dealer by an 18 year-old.10 Legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate in 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2005 to bring 50 caliber rifles under the National Firearms Act, thereby imposing registration requirements and other regulations on their importation, manufacture and transfer. Similar legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives in 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2005. Some of the bills introduced in the House also would have banned the transfer and possession of 50 caliber rifles. To date, there has been no movement on these bills.11
SUMMARY OF STATE LAWS REGARDING 50 CALIBER RIFLES
(This summary was last updated August 15, 2012.)
California is the only state that bans 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 the sale of 50 caliber ammunition cartridges.
Single Model Ban
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.
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.15
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, 2006.16
2. District of Columbia: The District deems .50 BMG rifles unregisterable, thereby prohibiting the possession, sale or other transfer of these firearms.
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.
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.
EXEMPLARY LOCAL LAW
In July 2010, the City of Chicago adopted an ordinance that comprehensively regulates firearms and ammunition. All firearms in the City must be registered, and 50 caliber rifles are one of a number of categories of firearms deemed “unregisterable.” It is illegal to carry or possess an unregisterable firearm in the City. The ordinance also prohibits the sale or transfer of 50 caliber ammunition in the City.
FEATURES OF COMPREHENSIVE LAW BANNING 50 CALIBER RIFLES
The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered and debated. The Law Center has not attempted to include every provision or every creative approach identified in the analysis above, nor have we addressed appropriate exceptions so that the regulation does not produce unintended consequences. A jurisdiction considering modifying existing, or developing new legislation in this area should consult with counsel to ensure its legal sufficiency and compatibility with existing codes and statutes, as appropriate.
- Ban applies to 50 caliber rifles (California, District of Columbia), 50 caliber handguns, and 50 caliber cartridges18
- 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
- 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 weapons19 (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). [↩]
- Id. at 8. [↩]
- For additional information on armor-piercing ammunition, see 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). [↩]
- See generally Violence Policy Center, Just Like Bird Hunting: The Threat to Civil Aviation From 50 Caliber Sniper Rifles (Jan. 2003). [↩]
- Office of Special Investigations, U.S. General Accounting Office, Weaponry: Availability of .50 Caliber Semiautomatic Rifles 6-7 (June 30, 1999). See also Violence Policy Center, Criminal Use of the 50 Caliber Sniper Rifle Fact Sheet (2007), available at http://www.vpc.org/snipercrime.htm (last visited Nov. 27, 2007). [↩]
- Violence Policy Center, One Shot, One Kill: Civilian Sales of Military Sniper Rifles 41-42 (May 1999); Voting from the Rooftops, supra note 1, at 62-68; and 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 5 (July 2005). [↩]
- Violence Policy Center, Vest Buster: The .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum – The Gun Industry’s Latest Challenge to Law Enforcement Body Armor 25 (June 2004). [↩]
- 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). [↩]
- A 2007 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recommended that Congress enact an effective ban on 50 caliber sniper rifles. International Association of Chiefs of Police, Taking a Stand: Reducing Gun Violence in Our Communities 27 (Sept. 2007). [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53-202a(a)(1). [↩]
- Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety §§ 5-101(p)(2)(ix), 5-102 – 5-143. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Chicago, Ill., Code §§ § 4-144-061, 8-20-140, 8-20-170. [↩]
- Certain local jurisdictions, including San Francisco and Los Angeles have bans that apply to 50 caliber cartridges, handguns and rifles. [↩]
- See our Registration of Firearms policy summary 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 Licensing of Gun Owners or Purchasers policy summary. [↩]