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What’s a Fifty Ban?

It started in California. Then it went and got popular in New York and Connecticut. Now it’s headed to New Jersey. It accomplishes nothing but it sure sounds scary. In case you missed them, there were two state Governor elections this year. The Virginia one got a bit more attention than the New Jersey one, but the fifty ban became an election issue right up there with taxes, viruses and critical race theory. 

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy called out 2021 gubernatorial contender Jack Ciattarelli twice in their September debate for voting against something he called a “fifty ban.” If you don’t know what that means, you’re not alone. Lack of knowledge and exploiting fear are key to firearms legislation strategy that is failing its way across America. 

Gun ownership has seen a massive surge since the pandemic began. Firearms and ammunition have famously been in global short supply. Last February, I went to the IDEX conference and met a guy at breakfast from a Western Asian country. It’s his job to buy ammunition for his country’s army, and since most of the people in town that day were present for the event, he asked me if I knew where he could get 8 million rounds of “556.” I didn’t, but I empathized.  

Massive shortages of anything means there are going to be conspiracy theories. One of the greatest examples of a brand extinguishing misinformation came from the CEO of the biggest ammo company in America. Jason Vanderbrink addressed the impossible demand for 700 million new rounds in a video that quickly went viral and has been viewed over 2 million times.

The “fifty ban” refers to a firearm caliber. Not the gun or an add on feature, to be clear. But let’s back up for a second and focus on the people most affected here. Roughly 15% of New Jersey residents legally own firearms which is one of the lowest gun ownership numbers in the country.

In practical terms, people up and down Bon Jovi’s home state have been cleared by Federal and State Governments and other protective layers to own a firearm. Gun owners don’t live in far off pickuptruckitopia, they are your friends and neighbors. 

They’ve complied with background checks and been fingerprinted in a costly, opaque process that can take a year to complete. Every rifle requires its owner to carry a card, and every handgun needs to be registered – and if you leave your home with your handgun, you’d better be going to the practice range directly while making no stops on the way.  

New Jersey has some of the strictest firearm control measures in the world, but the consistent calls for even more laws just keep coming. If you want an example of how strict the Garden State is with weapon classifications, please note that Ralphie’s Red Ryder Gun from “A Christmas Story, is classified as a firearm. Don’t shoot your eye out!

The “fifty ban” is not a new concept. Back in 2004, the same ban language was presented to voters in California citing snipers shooting down commercial aircraft as a clear and present danger. To say the scenario lawmakers are laying out as justification for this legislation is rare, would be an epic understatement. 

Fifty caliber rifles are enormous and it’s likely you’ve seen them in movies involving Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sniper teams carry these rifles in pieces because they are six feet long and weigh almost 40 pounds (without the ammunition). They cost tens of thousands of dollars to own and require highly specialized training to operate properly.   

New York Times bestselling author and decorated US Army Ranger sniper Nicholas Irving spoke about the fifty at length in a “break down” style video. Irving talks about how shot scenarios like the one being pitched to voters are nearly impossible in real life. 

Fifty caliber rifles are used in few crimes and we haven’t had any runway sniper teams. The Branch Davidians allegedly shot one or more at ATF agents in 1993 but no 50 caliber rifles were ever recovered. Other examples include the nefarious activity of a few flunkies connected to a drug cartel attempting to smuggle them into Mexico from the US. And a guy in Alaska who owned a 50 caliber rifle once threatened BLM officials but he didn’t specifically mention that he was going to use his fifty. (The bureau of land management doesn’t take kindly to such threats as you might imagine). 

Less than a year after California banned the fifty, one of the biggest and most famous manufacturers of fifty rifles made a move that is emblematic of the outcome of most firearms’ legislation. In 2005, Barret Firearms introduced a slightly smaller cartridge that is compliant with the law. The lesser cartridge is arguably just as effective as the greater. 

By the way, the Barret 50 is also the official Tennessee State Rifle. In Maryland you can only buy two a month according to local law. 

Can you tell the difference between a flash suppressor and a compensator? They look very similar and do some of the same things, but one is a felony magnet in New Jersey, the other is compliant with the law as it’s written. 

See the pattern here? Lawmakers ban a feature or caliber, and the gun industry evolves a slightly modified version. A different stock, a different barrel feature, or caliber, and the current law is rendered ineffective. Then we must add more laws, and the cycle continues because banning scary stuff sounds like a good idea. 

Complicated feature bans present their own challenges for law enforcement as well. Firearms can accept a dizzying and constantly changing array of modifiable features. It can be difficult to determine compliance because of the infinitely customizable nature of many firearm platforms. So, in addition to the long list of requests we make of law enforcement, they now have to be firearm feature experts as well.

All deaths and injuries because of firearm misuse are tragic, but we need to break the vicious ban cycle and focus on effective measures. There is a better path. 

Instead of complicating our law enforcement professional’s jobs, we can work with them to streamline and refine. We can place more emphasis on prevention and training for the millions of first-time firearms owners. 

We need to pass laws that can be effectively enforced and achieve the goal of a smarter, safer society.  This is common sense, right? Unfortunately, like a lot of other phrases, “common sense,” has become a political dog whistle. Both sides are using it with their own meaning attached. 

“Common sense” firearms control measures require no debate and anyone who disagrees is labeled a fool because you don’t have to prove the concept, you can just label it common sense.

Instead of answering the special interest demands for more laws, let’s focus on what’s really working. Governor Murphy established the Rutgers School of Public Health’s New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center (GVRC) but it has yet to fund efforts to measure the performance of New Jersey’s laws or the impact of banning features or calibers. 

While evaluating existing laws is clearly stated in its vision, currently the GVRC “are particularly interested in projects focused on interpersonal gun violence within New Jersey cities, and which places equity, diversity, and inclusion at the forefront.” 

We must acknowledge the inherent conflict of interest of an administration that’s funding its own effectiveness research. I’m also not sure why diversity equity and inclusion should be at the forefront of a gun violence conversation, but I hope the undue burden placed on our black and brown community members interested in owning guns is also on the agenda.  

If firearms legislation isn’t simply an attempt to disarm the populace, we need to make it equitable for black and brown people to own firearms. We’d need to fund research that will help these ethnic and economic groups achieve parity and equal access. Since residents of urban areas like Patterson, Camden and Newark aren’t getting the best education in that regard, and few of them are employed by companies who offer paternity breaks, we are proving to be systemically racist with our current firearms control measures. 

Unless we provide access to additional services that help with the volume of forms, costs, and time away from work to comply with this level of rigor, we aren’t creating an equal environment. If the process itself is systemically challenging the way many others are doing it, providing public assistance to members of the black and brown community would be our obligation. We can use models already in place for similar services, so it wouldn’t take much to level this playing field.

As a voter, you can help by getting informed so common sense can meet common experience. You can vote for people who understand how firearms work and who will stand up for safety with an accountable return. In the short term, you can contact your local legislators and tell them to end this cycle of failure.