'Weapon Of War' Or Just Another Gun?
By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The tragedy in Newtown has opened an emotional debate over how much gun is too much.
One of the guns that some lawmakers now want to ban -- the Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifle -- is made just down the road in Rutherford County. Murfreesboro native Ronnie Barrett, the man who invented the weapon, now says it's just another gun.
But our NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that some of the inventor's own claims have given ammunition to his critics.
"You demand a battle-proven rifle that has seen service defending freedom around the world," a deep-voiced announcer declares in a YouTube video posted by Barrett Firearms.
It's a weapon that Ronnie Barrett himself has described in dramatic terms.
"Unbelievable, unconceivable power is now in the hands of that individual soldier -- and that's what makes it the ultimate weapon," he said during the Ultimate Weapons program on the Military Channel.
Featured in the film The Hurt Locker, the Barrett has been hailed as a devastating weapon in the hands of America's military.
"That's what's great about the Barrett - it's the big fist of death coming at you," said a U.S. Army sniper in a History Channel show.
It's death that the Barrett .50-caliber rifle can deliver from more than a mile away.
But "it's less regulated than say a 22-caliber handgun in this handgun," said Tom Diaz, a gun control researcher who has spent years studying the Barrett and other .50-caliber sniper rifles.
Those weapons, he believes, could be catastrophic in the hands of terrorists or anyone else with evil motives.
"When I talk to people about the Barrett, they can't believe its capabilities," Diaz told NewsChannel 5 Investigates. "They say, oh, that can't be, the government wouldn't let you buy those. Well, yeah, they do let you buy them."
Barrett, who serves on the NRA's board of directors, refused to be interviewed about the weapon he invented.
It was designed to use the huge rounds fired from the legendary Browning Machine Gun.
Barrett's own patent calls it a "shoulder-fire able, armor-penetrating gun."
"You do not hunt, typically, with a Barrett .50-caliber -- it's utility is in military effectiveness," said John Harris, executive director for the Tennessee Firearms Association.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "You don't quibble with the notion that it's a weapon of war -- it's just a weapon of war that you think everyone has a right to own?"
"Well, I think you ought to have a choice to own it," he answered.
That despite claims that, we discovered, Barrett made in an early promotion about the weapon's "first strike capability."
"Compressor sections of jet engines or the transmissions of helicopters are likely targets ... making it capable of destroying multimillion-dollar aircraft with a single hit," it read.
That brochure, Ronnie Barrett says, was written for a military audience.
"Those are not Tom Diaz's words," we noted.
"No," the gun control advocate answered, "they are not my words. Those are the words of either Ronnie Barrett himself or his copywriter."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Harris, "Why should ordinary citizens be able to purchase a weapon that's capable of destroying multimillion-aircraft with a single hit?"
"If you go down the path of the Second Amendment, it is geared towards a political right to be able to own weapons suitable for overthrowing the government if necessary," he said, "then Barrett's kind of rifle is perfectly suitable for individual use."
But Diaz's concerns include more than aircraft as targets.
"It's explosive depot facilities, it's petroleum facilities, it's toxic gases like chlorine on rail cars," he added.
We asked Harris, "The notion that something could be used to destroy a multimillion-dollar aircraft is fine with you?"
"Well, you know, on 9/11, they used box cutters and brought them down, so I don't see that big of a difference," he said.
But our investigation discovered that the Barrett has a troubling history that its defenders have been reluctant to acknowledge. (See .50-Caliber Crimes map below)
At Waco, cult leader David Koresh used Barretts to hold off federal authorities, leading to the FBI's fateful decision to bring in U.S. Army tanks.
In Kansas City, a deranged man opened fire on first responders with a Barrett, blasting huge chunks out of a fire truck.
In Georgia, investigators believe robbers used a Barrett to attack a Wells Fargo armored car, blowing holes through its bulletproof glass.
And, in Mexico, authorities say a police helicopter was forced down in 2011 after being shot up by a Barrett. A photo, obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, shows where one .50-cal bullet blasted through the chopper's supposedly bulletproof windshield.
A recent congressional report concludes that the Barrett .50-caliber is now providing a "significant upgrade to the cartels' ability to inflict serious damage and casualties on their enemies."
Even Republican Congressman Darrell Issa has also called it a "fearsome rifle" and a "weapon of war."
"This is not coincidence," Diaz said, referring to the cartels' use of the weapon. "This is giving criminal organizations essentially paramilitary power."
So is it affecting our national security?
"No question about it," Diaz said, "because it's made it possible to confront the legitimate government."
But the ability to confront the legitimate government is fine with Harris and other gun rights advocates.
"That's what the Second Amendment stands for," he said.
While he refused to sit down and answer our questions, Ronnie Barrett sent an email to NewsChannel 5 Investigates in which he claimed that without special, military ammunition, his weapon is just "another gun."
He even claimed that there is no armor-piercing ammunition of any kind available on the civilian market.
But our investigation discovered that if you go on the Internet there's plenty of it.
As for Diaz, he insisted that he doesn't want to ban the .50-caliber sniper rifle; he just wants to regulate it.