BATF and The Graying of the Law
by Walter Lee
On June 19, 2000 agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided the home/business of Robert Steward in Mesa, Arizona. They were led to Mr. Steward by his website, Maadi-Griffin, which offered internet sales of "gun kits."
As sold, the kits were not guns. However, instructions were provided which would allow a skilled machinist to convert the kit into a unique single shot rifle unlike anything which might be found in your local sporting goods shop.
The only caliber offered was the .50 BMG-- the round used in the U.S. military's 50 caliber machine gun. Developed in the early part of the century, this round has been used as the standard heavy machine gun round since World War II. The gun is used on jeeps, tanks, aircraft, and as infantry support.
During Vietnam, some marine snipers mounted scopes on these machine guns and used them like rifles to achieve confirmed kills at more than a mile. It is a highly accurate round. It is also the most powerful commercially available cartridge allowed to be publically possessed under the 1968 Gun Control Act. Anything larger is considered a "destructive device" under U.S. law.
In the past decade, a great deal of interest has been created in these specialized rifles. They probably came to public attention at Waco where the Davidians were accused of using them to hold government helicopters at bay. Since that time, a number of people have acquired them as the ultimate long range shooter. Most are single shots, like the Maadi-Griffins, distributed by Mr. Steward.
There are also some semi-automatic models.
Almost all people believe that these rifles are monstrous. For some, such description come from their potential-- to be able to hit a small target at ranges up to two miles with a bullet that crashes through almost all armor short of a battle tank. Surplus bullets are available in armor piercing, incendiary and tracer configurations.
Others would consider see the characteristics of the weapons themselves as "monstrous." Many are almost five feet long. They weigh
up to 30 pounds and are best fired from a tripod. The muzzle blast and recoil scare many away. And then there's the price: even in kit form they cost almost two thousand dollars, plus another thousand for machine work and a heavy duty scope. The cost of shooting them is almost as bad. You can expect to pay a couple of dollars per shot even with cheap surplus ammunition. These guns are not for the weak of heart or the weak of resources.
And they certainly aren't the gun of choice for the internecine drug wars. To the best of my knowledge they have never been used in any murder or assault apart from the accusations which flow from the Waco affair.
There are two groups that seems to gravitate to them: serious hobbyists who use them in specialized competitions, and those who believe that they will be needed for defense of home and or community in the "coming unpleasantness"-- however defined or envisioned. The second group is generally "anti-government" and often extremely vocal in their "don't tread on me" pronouncements.
It is the potential of these weapons in the hands of the second group that is the concern of BATF. Some have speculated that the raid
on Mr. Steward's home/business was focused on his customer list. To know who would go to the trouble and expense to acquire such
weaponry might be of considerable interest to some in government.
While there is serious debate as to the usefulness and appropriateness of these "long range rifles," (a debate which I will not enter at this time), there is no debate that they are legal to possess and use under federal law. The fact that their power is at the upper limit of applicable law annoys some.
If the law were changed to outlaw .50 caliber rifles, creating instead a .49 or .40 caliber legal maximum, there would be enterprising souls pushing those limits as well. As long as laws are written in terms of prohibited items and substances, things are either legal or illegal. There was a time when marijuana, heroin, and LSD were all legal in this nation. There was a time when transporting alcohol was illegal. Laws dealing with prohibited substances are always arbitrary. Lines drawn between legal and illegal do not define good v. bad, healthy v. unhealthy, etc.
Prior to 1968, it was perfectly legal to own bazookas, anti-tank weapons, and even tanks with their cannon installed in these United
States. Nor was their prohibition on their ammunition. Prior to 1934, any person in the United States could order a Thompson Submachine Gun by mail if they had the money. (Since 1934, a $200 tax has been mandated on machine guns, but they are still legal in much of the country!)
Regardless of what people think of as right and wrong, good or bad, .50 caliber weapons are legal to own and use in the United States.
Back to Mr. Steward's case: Mr. Steward made his living at the inside edge of the law. Most of Mr. Steward's living came from selling "kits" for these high powered rifles. The "kits" Mr. Steward sold were not firearms. Firearms, by definition (legal definition) are capable of propelling a projectile down a barrel. What Mr. Steward sold would not do that. They were inert hunks of metal which were not useful for anything, as sold. However, by following the instructions provided, a skilled machinist with the right tools could convert "the inert hunks of metal" into the firearms described in a short time.
It is not illegal to make a firearm in the United States. Before one does, a person needs the approval of the United States Government. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms provides application forms requiring the payment of a tax, a picture, fingerprints, etc. But it is not illegal.
Firearms can be build of many materials. When I was a child, I remember visiting the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas. They had a large display of homemade guns used by the resistance in the Philippines. They were made of pipe and wire and flat springs and in one case, bamboo was used for the barrel of a crude shotgun.
There was a time when everyone knew what a "zip gun" was-- guns made of pens and rubber bands by the gang members of the "Jets" and "Sharks" era. There have been numerous articles on the gun making skills of the Afghan resistance during their war with the late Soviet Union: native craftsmen with files and crude foot powered lathes turning out functioning copies of Colt pistols and AK 47s. There is no telling what they could do with the tools available at Sears.
We Americans have always been a nation of tinkers and craftsmen. Many is the homework shop. Certainly, American ingenuity can be
applied to building firearms. The only reason that it is generally not is that complete firearms are readily available. Still, there are thousands of "smiths," large and small, make custom modifications and accessories. Few build firearms from scratch, although it is not in itself "illegal."
The building of a firearm is not particularly difficult. What is difficult is creating an efficient design and determining and acquiring the correct materials for high pressure loads. Determining through calculation and/or experimentation just how thick a chamber wall needs to be may be a bit more "exciting" than some want to stand.
However, assembling a "kit" is a challenge and an accomplishment. Many people have build their own muzzle loaders from such kits. Hunting or competing with a home built gun is a matter of pride.
While the pride of doing it yourself may be the reason for muzzle loaders and/or some benchrest sportsman, most "modern" gun kits
are sold for other reasons. Under federal law, the "receiver" (the frame to which the barrel, stock and other parts are attached) is the firearm. Whether it is assembled or not makes no legal difference.
All other parts (with the exception of some pieces that can conv