Conyers Says Gun Makers 'Marketing Sniper Rifles to Criminals'

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - The ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee has accused some gun manufacturers of marketing so-called "sniper rifles" in a manner that "appears to intentionally appeal to law breakers."

"The D.C. Metropolitan area has been hit by a tragic flurry of gun violence," Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said at a Capitol Hill news conference Thursday. "Nine innocent people have been killed or injured by a serial killer who is using the technology of sniper rifles." Another fatal shooting Friday morning initially appeared linked to the other Beltway Sniper incidents.

Gary Mehalik with the National Shooting Sports Foundation called Conyers' comments "a crass and opportunistic attempt to capitalize on the sufferings and deaths," of the victims and their families.

"The firearms industry regrets having to be involved in any way with this shameful media stunt," he said. "The industry is shocked and offended by those who have jumped to a conclusion about the kind of firearms which may have been used in the commission of a crime, as a total distraction from the urgent need to find the criminal and stop these attacks."

Authorities investigating the murders have, in fact, not identified the weapon being used by the shooter other than to say that it is chambered for .223-caliber ammunition. Firearms capable of chambering that cartridge include single-shot, bolt-action, semi-automatic, and fully automatic rifles and at least one handgun.

A number of similar firearms in other calibers are also capable of firing the same size bullet from different size cartridges.

Typical uses of the .223 include target shooting as a hobby or in competition and hunting small game. The fully automatic or "machine gun" versions are used almost exclusively by military and law enforcement personnel for combat situations. Law enforcement and military snipers most commonly use bolt-action or semi-automatic rifles in the much larger .308 or .30-06 calibers.

U.S. civilians are only allowed to possess fully automatic weapons in any caliber with a special $200 "stamp" or license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The stamp is only available to individuals who have completed an extensive criminal and mental health background investigation.

Between the time Conyers' staff issued a press advisory about the congressman's news conference and the time Conyers actually appeared he had changed some of the language in his allegations.

"I am here today to solicit the FTC's [Federal Trade Commission] help in bringing an end to a practice that has become far too common in our communities, the mass marketing of military style rifles to civilians," he said.

The initial media advisory accused gun makers of "marketing sniper rifles to criminals."

Tom Diaz, a senior policy analyst with the Violence Policy Center (VPC), an anti-Second Amendment group, joined Conyers in calling for a ban on the civilian ownership of many firearms.

Diaz indirectly accused firearms manufacturers of contributing to the shootings in the Washington, D.C. area.

"It is clear, the gun industry stands ready to arm and train anyone with the fantasy of being a real life sniper," he claimed. "Tragically, the nation is now witnessing the horror of that potential realized."

Mehalik took particular exception to that allegation.

"Accurate rifles capable of reliably hitting their targets have been made and sold for hundreds of years, and are used by millions of Americans in the pursuit of hunting and other recreational enjoyment of the shooting sports," he explained. "It is to those millions we market our safe and lawfully sold products."

Erich Pratt, communications director for Gun Owners of America, was not surprised by the attempt to link the legal ownership of certain firearms and the manufacturers of those firearms to criminal activity.

"Once again Conyers and the rest of the 'gun haters' crowd are trying to demonize gun owners by suggesting that these guns are basically good for nothing than being used by criminals," he said, "which is flat-out wrong."

Not only is the ownership and possession of the weapons criticized by Conyers and VPC protected by the U.S. Constitution, according to Pratt, such weapons are "frequently" used for self-defense.

"Probably the best known example of this occurred during the Los Angeles riots when shop owners were photographed and filmed using these types of semi-automatic long-guns to protect their stores," he recalled. "It was their stores that were left standing while stores next to them were burned down [by rioters]."

The contention that gun manufacturers are intentionally marketing their products to criminals is "just crazy" Pratt said.

"One, that would place them in danger of being put out of business," he explained, "But, two, we know statistically that only a fraction of one percent of the guns in this country are used in crimes. From a marketing standpoint, it would be idiotic to market your product to the smallest of the smallest minority."

The FBI, in 2000, reported 340,145 offenses committed by individuals who displayed, pointed, or discharged a firearm during the commission of the crime, including 8,043 murders. By contrast, the National Institute of Justice found in 1997 that Americans displayed, pointed, or discharged a firearm in self-defense against a criminal as many as 1.5 million times a year.

Derick Rill, a spokesman for the FTC, told that the agency does have jurisdiction over the advertising of firearms, as it does over almost all other consumer products and services.

Information available on the FTC website summarizes the agency's jurisdiction and explains that the laws it enforces require that:

    Advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive;
    Advertisers must have the evidence to back up their claims; and
    Advertisements cannot be unfair.

Conyers did not accuse the firearms industry of violating any of those provisions.

Rill said that, as of Thursday night, the FTC had not received an official request from Conyers to conduct the investigation, although Rill was "aware" of the press conference.

"The Federal Trade Commission takes all requests from the Hill seriously and gives them due consideration," he added.

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