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At gun stores and gun shows in nearly every state, target shooters, collectors and the plain curious can readily purchase a .50 caliber rifle. Accurate at distances of a mile and as powerful as a small cannon, the .50 caliber rifle fires a bullet that will punch a hole through virtually anything. Armor- piercing or explosive ammunition-widely used in military settings to destroy armored personnel carriers or bunkers-increase its destructiveness. Used by terrorists, the .50 caliber rifle could inflict catastrophic damage: An approaching commercial airliner, a rail car loaded with hazardous chemicals or a petroleum-tank farm would all be easy targets. For this reason, the .50 caliber rifle is now at the center of a heated debate, pitting legitimate homeland security concerns against the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Some state lawmakers have come down on the side of gun control. Effective Jan. 1, it is illegal to manufacture, distribute, transport or sell a .50 caliber rifle in the state of California. In enacting the .50 Caliber BMG Regulation Act of 2004, legislators found that the .50 caliber rifle represents “a clear and present terrorist threat to the health, safety, and security of all residents of and visitors to” California. Lawmakers specifically noted the danger that the .50 caliber rifle poses to critical infrastructure such as “power generation and transmission facilities, petrochemical production and storage facilities, and transportation.” Citizens who possessed the weapon before the ban’s effective date must register the firearm with the California Department of Justice by April 30, 2006. Other states-and even the federal government-may follow California’s lead. Just recently, lawmakers in Massachusetts and Illinois offered legislation that would forbid the sale of .50 caliber rifles. Introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in February, the 50 Caliber Sniper Rifle Reduction Act (H.R. 654) would take the prohibition nationwide. The federal legislation would make it “unlawful for any person to transfer or possess a 50 caliber sniper weapon.” An undeniable threat There is no question that the .50 caliber rifle poses a threat to homeland security-and especially to vulnerable critical infrastructures. In a 2004 study commissioned by the Los Angeles World Airports-the city agency responsible for Los Angeles International Airport-security experts analyzed 11 likely attack scenarios. In one scenario, terrorists armed with a .50 caliber rifle shoot at parked and taxiing airplanes. Considering the effective range of the .50 caliber rifle, terrorists could hit aircraft from atop a building or a concealed location hundreds of yards away from the airport’s perimeter. The .50 caliber rifle already has been used against law enforcement: In the failed 1993 raid against the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, a .50 caliber rifle was fired at approaching federal agents attempting to serve a search warrant. Authorities had to call in heavily armored vehicles for protection. However, the .50 caliber rifle debate raises a more fundamental issue regarding terrorist access to any firearm, not simply the most powerful ones. While federal law precludes individuals who have been convicted of a felony or who are in the United States unlawfully from purchasing a firearm, inclusion on a government terror watch list is not a disqualifier. Individuals who are currently on a terror watch list may legally purchase a firearm-including a .50 caliber rifle-provided the prospective purchaser submits to the appropriate background check and is not otherwise disqualified by law. This very scenario unfolds dozens of times each year in gun stores and at gun shows across the country. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that between Feb. 3, 2004, and June 30, 2004, 35 firearm transactions were allowed to proceed, even though the required background check revealed that the purchaser was on a government terror watch list. Why these weapons were purchased or to whom they might be unlawfully transferred after purchase is unknown. Indeed, firearms bought legally in the United States by terrorist sympathizers could even make their way through the black and gray arms markets of the world to Afghanistan or Iraq and be used against American forces. To date, federal firearms laws have not accounted for this possibility. Whether involving an ultrapowerful .50 caliber rifle or the comparatively paltry .22 caliber target rifle, gun laws must be amended to prohibit individuals who appear on terror watch lists from purchasing weapons. At a minimum, membership on a terror watch list should not carry with it the right to bear arms. Steven E. Roberts, an NLJ columnist, is a homeland security consultant.

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