(CBS) California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger decided there’s a weapon that’s too dangerous to be in the hands of private citizens.
This past week, a new law went into effect in California banning that weapon. It’s the .50-caliber rifle, the Rolls Royce of sniper rifles. It’s a big gun, a favorite of armies around the world, and it’s still available in 49 states in this country to anyone over 18 with a clean record.
It is, without a doubt, the most powerful weapon you can buy. And, as Correspondent Ed Bradley reports, it's powerful enough to kill a man or pierce armor from more than a mile away.
A Senate report said that a bullet from a .50-caliber rifle, even at 1.5 miles, crashes into a target with more energy than a bullet fired at point-blank range from Dirty Harry’s famous .44 Magnum.
The .50-caliber rifle, one of the world’s best combat weapons, was invented 22 years ago in Murfreesboro, Tenn., by Ronnie Barrett.
How did he come up with the idea? "I was just a 26-year-old kid, and didn't know any better," he says.
But he knew enough to design a weapon that today is used by the armed forces of 35 different countries. He showed 60 Minutes a semi-automatic 82A1 rifle. "This was the first rifle that I designed, and has been our most popular rifle," he says. "This is the one that the United States Army ordered. Matter of fact, this is a U.S. Army rifle here."
Even though the .50-caliber rifle is a military-grade weapon, federal gun laws treat it like any other hunting rifle, and Barrett can sell the gun to civilians. He says he needs to, because military sales vary widely from year to year.
"If it weren’t for the civilian sales, I wouldn’t be here. There’s a lot of defense contractors that would not be here," says Barrett.
He has sold thousands of .50-caliber rifles to private citizens who, he says, want the guns for target shooting and big game hunting.
But he scoffs at critics who claim that .50-caliber rifles are too dangerous in the hands of civilians. "The .50 has an excellent record. You know, as far as the abuses with .50-caliber rifles, they are so few, if any, that all other calibers ought to aspire to have as good a record as it has," says Barrett. "And it's a long rifle. When you hear people say it’s a criminal’s weapon, this is 5-and-a-half feet tall, or something like that. This is not a weapon that a criminal would use."
It’s not convenience store robberies that worry Tom Diaz, a gun control advocate who was an expert witness in the California campaign to ban the gun.
Diaz says the .50-caliber rifle made by Barrett and other manufacturers is a menace in the hands of terrorists. "This gun is designed and built to smash things up and to set things on fire," says Diaz. "It’s a battlefield weapon. Yet it is sold as freely on the American civilian market as a .22 bolt action rifle."
What's wrong with Barrett's product?
"I'm glad Ronnie Barrett makes his rifle for our military forces. I think it's a great thing on the battlefield," says Diaz. "I just think that there are certain occasions when we say in our society, this product is such a threat to our health and safety, and in this case, our national security, we will not allow it."
But isn’t any gun in the hands of a terrorist a threat?
"Well of course any gun is. But it is a gun that is unparalleled by any other small arm available to civilians," says Diaz. "We control every other kind of weapon of war you can think of – machine guns, plastic explosives, rockets. But this thing has flown under the radar for about 20 years."
Why would you need a weapon this powerful if you're not fighting a war? "It's a target rifle. It's a toy," says Barrett. "It's a high-end adult recreational toy. Any rifle in the hands of a terrorist is a deadly weapon."
But New York City’s Police Commissioner Ray Kelly says the .50-caliber rifle is in a class by itself. He agreed to show 60 Minutes just how powerful the .50 caliber is.
First, a police sharpshooter fired the NYPD’s own .30 caliber sniper rifle at a steel target. Downrange, three football fields away, the three shots from the .30 caliber rifle bounced off the half-inch thick steel.
"You can see it hasn’t penetrated it," says Kelly.
Then the sharpshooter fired three rounds from a Barrett .50-caliber rifle at the same target.
"Went right through," says Kelly. "It is clearly a weapon of war, a round to be used in a wartime situation. It’s appropriate for the military. The effective range is about 2,000 yards. It’s a very formidable weapon."
In other words, if the NYPD’s range had been 20 football fields long, instead of three, the .50-caliber rifle – firing ordinary ammunition -- still would have been devastatingly effective.
"Clearly, it is a very powerful weapon. We saw what it could do as far as going through armor," says Kelly. "It would be a weapon that could do a lot of damage – no question about that."
This is exactly what the FBI learned in 1993 at Waco when Branch Davidians fired a Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifle at them.
In response, the FBI deployed Bradley fighting vehicles for protection. But even that wasn’t sufficient, and heavier armor was brought in.
What happened at Waco was one of the arguments made for banning the weapon in California. Other states are now considering a similar ban for fear of potential terrorist attacks.
"If you go through virtually any industrial state, you’ll see right off the highways all kinds of highly toxic and or flammable materials stored in big tanks. These are ideal targets," says Diaz. "The point is you can plan your attack from a longer distance. It’s the combination of range and power."
The standard .50-caliber bullet is four times heavier than the .30-caliber bullet, and 10 times heavier than the M16 bullet.
In addition to the standard .50-caliber bullet, some bullets are designed to pierce armor, some to set things on fire. Those are all legal to buy. But the most devastating .50-caliber bullet is an armor-piercing, incendiary and explosive round sometimes called Raufoss, after the company that makes it.
Barrett says he’s not concerned about Raufoss because it’s illegal. "It's a high-explosive round," he says. "It’s not available commercially. I can’t even buy it."
In fact, 60 Minutes found a number of sites on the Internet that claimed to be selling the explosive Raufoss ammunition. On one site, it witnessed someone making an apparent transaction of the illegal round.
Barrett said he was surprised. "If it is out there and if someone other than our military has it, then it is stolen," he says. "And those people need to be prosecuted. We have laws against that. Passing additional laws, you know, is just a redundancy."
But, according to Diaz, the threat posed by legal ammunition is frightening enough. There are many potential targets, he says, but the most obvious is commercial aviation.
"Do I believe I could shoot an aircraft at altitude? Of course not, but on takeoff and landing, I could take you to places in Washington, D.C., where I’m absolutely certain you could shoot an aircraft with one of these guns," says Diaz.
"Clearly, with the range that it has, and the impact capability that it has, it would put an airliner or an airplane at risk if it hit that plane," adds Kelly.
Could the gun be used by a terrorist to shoot down a commercial airliner?
"It'd be very difficult. It would if it were a tactic that were even remotely possible," says Barrett. "Then our military, who happens to use the rifle, would be training their troops to do such."
But in his sales brochures, Barrett advertises the .50-caliber as a weapon that can take planes down.
"There's some military brochures that we had early on that showed that you could damage aircraft on a runway or Scud missiles and things like that," says Barrett. "Yes, you could if you have a parked target."
But not in the air? "That's correct," says Barrett.
Just this past year, the Rand Corporation released a report identifying 11 potential terrorist scenarios involving Los Angeles International Airport.
In one scenario, “a sniper using a .50-caliber rifle fires at parked and taxiing aircraft.” The report concludes: “We were unable to identify any truly satisfactory solutions” for such an attack.
Diaz told 60 Minutes about other much more specific scenarios in which terrorists might use the weapon, which we chose not to broadcast.
"I consider some of the stuff Tom Diaz lays out irresponsible," says Barrett. "I know a lot of things, but I’m not going to go on the television and tell people what the capabilities of equipment are and possibly give ideas to people."
Is what Diaz is saying accurate? "Yes, it could be. But it also, seeming begging someone to commit this crime. Somebody please commit this crime so I can validate what I’ve been saying so long," says Barrett. "And it’s repeated over and over, and I fear that somebody will answer that call."
Diaz disagrees. "Its kind of a classic gun-industry argument," he says. "First, they deny there’s a problem and then when something happens, they point the finger at people who tried to warn about it and say you guys caused this and you just hoped it would happen."
Federal agencies responsible for preventing terrorist attacks declined to be interviewed about the .50-caliber rifle. But last June, the Department of Homeland Security told the Dallas Morning News, “We remain concerned about any weapon of choice that could potentially be used by a terrorist, including a .50-caliber rifle.”
"Any rifle could be used to engage a target that it might stand a chance of hitting, of course," says Barrett. "You know, you don’t want to shoot any high-speed projectile at an airplane. It’s illegal."
"A terrorist is not concerned about what’s legal or not," says Bradley.
"That’s correct," says Barrett. "And a terrorist is not concerned if you pass, or Tom Diaz passes, another law."
Diaz wants Congress to pass a law requiring, at a minimum, records to be kept of who’s buying .50-caliber rifles.
"The real question here is we do not know who has these terribly destructive rifles," says Diaz. "No one in the United States government knows who has these guns."
"Aren't records kept when a gun is sold," asks Bradley.
"The answer is no," says Diaz.
Under the Brady Bill, sales records of guns used to be kept for 90 days, which enabled the FBI to check the names of gun purchasers against terror watch lists.
A year ago, at Attorney General John Ashcroft’s initiative, Congress reduced the period of record keeping from 90 days to 24 hours. That’s the policy that’s in effect today.