California Bans a Large-Caliber Gun, and the Battle Is On By CAROLYN MARSHALL Published: January 4, 2005 SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 3 - California has become the first state to ban a powerful 50-caliber long-range rifle that gun control advocates portray as a military firearm that could easily fall into the hands of terrorists bent on assassination or shooting down an airplane. Under the ban, which was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September and took effect on Jan. 1, it is now illegal to manufacture, sell, distribute or import a weapon known as the .50-caliber BMG, or Browning machine gun rifle, a single-shot weapon widely used not only by law enforcement officers and the military but, more recently, by civilian sport shooters as well. The new law limits possession to those who already own the rifle; they have until April 30, 2006, to register it or face a misdemeanor charge. Gun rights advocates fear that the California legislation will prompt other states to follow - similar efforts have been undertaken in New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and Virginia, but have failed - and enthusiasts are already devising ways to alter the gun and so circumvent the law without breaking it. Another result of the law is that in the weeks before it took effect, people rushing to buy the limited supplies of .50 BMG's descended on gun shops throughout California. Now that it is in force, some of the gun's out-of-state makers and distributors have threatened not to sell any of their firearms or services here. "We all think it's the first step toward banning sniper rifles," said Michael Fournier, owner of the Gun Exchange, a shop in San Jose. "They keep chipping away a little at a time. Eventually they'll try to get them all." A lawyer for the California Rifle and Pistol Association, a lobby that fought the legislation, said that for the first time gun control advocates had managed "to demonize" a firearm that gun proponents and lawmaker allies say has never been used to commit a crime in the United States. The lawyer, Chuck Michel, said the .50 BMG, which weighs 30 pounds and can cost $2,000 to $8,000, was typically bought by collectors, shooting range enthusiasts and skilled competitors. "Criminals don't carry around very pricey, very heavy rifles," Mr. Michel said. "They want handguns they can conceal." The .50 BMG rifle, patented in 1987 by Barrett Firearms Manufacturing of Murfreesboro, Tenn., was designed as a sniper weapon for law enforcement and the military; it was widely used by American troops during the Persian Gulf war of 1991. Manufacturers say the rifle is accurate at a range of up to 2,000 yards, more than a mile. It fires bullets five and a half inches long described as powerful enough to rip through armor, much less the thin aluminum skin that covers commercial airliners. "They can pierce the skin of an aircraft," said Daniel R. Vice, a lawyer with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a central supporter of the law. "It could be used to shoot down an airplane. And we certainly don't want to wait until a terrorist buys one before we ban it." The legislation's author, Assemblyman Paul Koretz, a Democrat from West Hollywood, concedes that street criminals would most likely view the .50 BMG as too much gun for the typical robbery or drive-by shooting. Rather, the law is intended to help keep the weapon out of the hands of "terrorists, general nut cases and survivalists," Mr. Koretz said, citing government reports suggesting that it had been used in assassinations overseas and that at least 25 had been bought by Osama bin Laden. Mr. Michel, the lawyer for the gun rights group, said that adopting the ban in the name of fighting terrorism was without merit. "The terrorist can get a nuclear dirty bomb or a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher," he said. "The .50-caliber is just a peashooter in comparison." But while there is no conclusive evidence that the .50 BMG rifle has ever been used in the United States to commit a felony, it has nonetheless been seized from American criminals' arsenals. A 1999 briefing paper from the General Accounting Office, predecessor of the Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative arm, said, "We have established a nexus to terrorist groups, outlaw motorcycle gangs, international drug cartels, domestic drug dealers, religious cults, militia groups, potential assassins and violent criminals." A side effect of the new law is the ill will it has instilled toward Mr. Schwarzenegger among gun rights advocates. Many of them supported him for governor, and maintain that his signing the legislation was an act of betrayal. "You know what we call him?" said Jerry Sloan, assistant manager of Precision Arms, a shop in Escondido. "Benedict Arnold." Terri Carbaugh, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, had made his position clear during his campaign. "It's a military-type weapon," Ms. Carbaugh said of the .50 BMG, "and he believes the gun presents a clear and present danger to the general public."