Takeout, delivered

Buying a gun in the USA

The following are extracts from transcripts of two tape-recorded conversations between undercover investigators from the Office of Special Investigations at the US General Accounting Office and two gun dealers in Nebraska and Oregon, respectively. The calls were part of an investigation by the House Committee on Government Reform into the availability of long-range .50-caliber sniper rifles and armor-piercing ammunition. With an effective range of four miles an the ability to pierce several inches of steel, .50-caliber rifles are among the most powerful and destructive firearms legally available in the United States. The rifles were widely used by US infantrymen in the Gulf War to penetrate armored personnel carriers and concrete bunkers. Convited felons and children under eighteen are not allowed to buy the ammunition or new rifles, though secondhand sales of the rifles are not regulated.

Agent: Yes, I’m looking to see if you carry .50-caliber BMG armor-piercing incendiary.

Dealer: A guy just bought the last thousand rounds about twenty minutes ago. I will have more back in here Monday or Tuesday.

Agent: Okay. How much is it a round?

Dealer: Two hundred and forty dollars a hundred.

Agent: This ammo will go through, say, metal, won’t it?

Dealer: Uh, yeah, it’ll go through metal.

Agent: Okay. Do you think it would go through, like, an armored limousine?

Dealer: Well, I think it would. [Laughing]

Agent: How ’bout bulletproof glass?

Dealer: Oh, yeah, it’ll go through that.

Agent: Even if it’s ballistic glass, it’ll still go through?

Dealer: Right.

Agent: With the first round, probably?

Dealer: Right.

Agent: Okay. Now, I live on the East oast — can you send it to me?

Dealer: Uh, whereabouts do you live?

Agent: Uh, I live in Virginia, but I’d like it shipped to D.C.

Dealer: Okay.

Agent: How can I go about doing that?

Dealer: I’ll put my assistant on, and she can give you all the information.

Agent: Okay, but I’ve got a couple of technical questions first. This ammunition, does it clog up the barrel of the weapon?

Dealer: Oh no—it’s got the soft jacket on the outside. We also have a sniper round we do for the government. What kind of gun are you shooting?

Agent: A Barrett Model 82.

Dealer: We’ve got a round we’ve developed for the Barrett, a solid-brass bullet with a poly coating on it—that’s our sniper round.

Agent: And that’s what you’ve sold the government?

Dealer: Yes.

Agent: Now, that sniper round, does that give you higher velocity, greater distance, or what?

Dealer: It gives you the best accuracy.

Agent: So if I wanted to use this against a person, let’s say, the sniper round would be better?

Dealer: Right, right, because it makes the rifle real accurate.

Agent: If I got the sniper round instead of the armor-piercing incendiary, though, would it still go through ballistic glass?

Dealer: Oh, I don’t know—I don’t think we’ve tested on ballistic glass. It’ll go through three-inch aircraft window.

Agent: But, say, an armored limousine?

Dealer: Uh, we’ve never tested it on that.

Agent: All right. What’s the price for these sniper rounds?

Dealer: Four dollars a round by the hundred, or fifty a round by the ten-round.

Agent: So they’re more than the API?

Dealer Oh yeah.

Agent: Well, I think I’m better off with API. I’m going to be using this against, um, you know, something with an armored limousine and something with ballistic glass, and I just want to make sure I’m going to be able to penetrate. So put me on with your assistant there, and maybe I can figure out how I can get this shipped to me.

Dealer: Okay, hold on.

Assistant: Okay. What we’ll need is a copy of your driver’s license to prove that we’re shipping to someone over the age of twenty-one.

Agent: Okay.

Assistant: And a statement that you are over the age of twenty-one and that there are no federal, state, or local laws that prohibit you from receiving the ammunition. Once we have that on file, you’d never have to do it again — that’s just, you know, for the first time.

Agent: Okay. So I just have to write a statement out and sign it, saying that I’m over twenty-one years of age and there’s no federal, state or local laws prohibiting me from —

Assistant: Receiving the information.

Agent: Ammunition, you mean.

Assistant: And, uh, this can be faxed to us. Once we have it on file, we can send some stuff to you.

Agent: Okay.

Assistant: Can I get your name?

Agent: My first name is Roger.

Assistant: Okay.

Agent: Well, actually, that’s just what they call me. My real name is Julian.

Assistant: Okay.

Agent: You can see why I want to be called Roger?

Assistant: There you go. [Laughter] Okay.

Dealer: Can I help you?

Agent: Yes, I’m interested in ordering some .50-caliber BMG ammo. I was wondering if you have any in stock.

Dealer: No, it’s all sold. I’m taking orders for a month from now.

Agent: I may be interested in some API.

Dealer: Okay.

Agent: Now, do you know a lot about these rounds?

Dealer: Well, um, some.

Agent: Do you think they’ll go through bullet-proof glass?

Dealer: Well, they’re loaded with the bullet weight the military uses now—660 or something.

Agent: Uh-huh.

Dealer: In the old days they used 700 grains or something. But nowadays they use 660, so they’re getting a little more velocity out of it. And I just can’t see glass standing up to that.

Agent: How about an armored limousine?

Dealer: You’re using that to test it?

Agent: Well, you say testing—Yeah, I’ll be testing against armored limousines. But it’s gotta work.

Dealer: Right.

Agent: You know, I don’t want to have the chance of it not working.

Dealer: Well, there’s no way that I can guarantee it. I’m not familiar with the glass they’re using nowadays.

Agent: But you’ve never had any complaints from your customers about these being misfires or anything? These rounds are pretty good?

Dealer: They’ll bore through a fair amount of steel.

Agent: Okay.

Dealer: I don’t know how strong the glass is, but the ammo will go through a fair amount of steel. [Laughing] It’ll go through the whole car.

Agent: Okay. Would it go through a lightly armored tank, do you think?

Dealer: It won’t go through any modern tank, because we have too much armor on them now.

Agent: Uh-huh.

Dealer: But it would probably go through two and a half or three inches of mild steel.

Agent: Oh. An armored limousine definitely doesn’t have that much on it.

Dealer: That’s what I’m saying. I think a .50 would go all the way through it.

Agent: Okay. And then, if I theoretically wanted to use these rounds to take down an aircraft—say, a helicopter, or something like that—I should be able to do that, shouldn’t I?

Dealer: Yeah, they’re not armored. I’ll go through any light stuff like that.

Agent: Good. You know, I’m very happy to see that we’ll be able to do business. Here on the East Coast, when you go to buy ammunition, they ask a lot of questions.

Dealer: Oh.

Agent: And I don’t like people asking me questions about why I want this ammunition.

Dealer: Well, see, out here they use it for hunting.

Agent: Uh-huh. Well, you could say I’m going to be using this for hunting also. But just hunting of a different kind.

Dealer: [Laughing] As long as it’s nothing illegal.

Agent: Well, I wouldn’t consider it illegal.

Dealer: All right.

—Found in Harper’s Magazine, March 2001