How the FN Herstal Five-seveN pistol used in the Fort Hood shooting--originally designed as a military-only handgun/ammo combination capable of piercing the body armor worn by soldiers on the battlefield--came to be sold on the U.S. civilian market is a stark example of the increasing militarization of the U.S. civilian gun market and the enabling role played by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)--even in the age of Obama.
As detailed in Big Boomers--Rifle Power Designed Into Handguns, a study released last December by my organization, the Violence Policy Center:
"FN Herstal originally created its novel 5.7X28mm cartridge as the ammunition for a submachine gun, the P-90, designed at the invitation of NATO and in response to military needs for a weapon to be used by 'troops who needed both hands for other tasks, such as officers, NCOs and technical troops,' and that would be effective against the body armor that has become a standard accoutrement on the battlefield."
Eventually, as one gun writer noted, "it became clear that a pistol was needed as an adjunct to the P90 SMG, so in the mid-1990s FNH set out to design a handgun to accompany the 'high-tech' P90 SMG."
Originally, FN Herstal stated that the pistol would not be sold on the civilian market. In 1996, a spokesman for the company described the pistol as designed for anti-terrorist and hostage rescue operations and "too potent" for normal police duties. In 1999, the National Rifle Association's American Rifleman magazine stated, "Law enforcement and military markets are the target groups of FN's new FiveseveN pistol," adding, "Don't expect to see this cartridge sold over the counter in the United States. In this incarnation, it is strictly a law enforcement or military round." In 2000, American Handgunner magazine assured the public, "For reasons that will become obvious, neither the gun nor the ammunition will ever be sold to civilians or even to individual officers."
To address rising concerns about the ability of specific types of ammunition available with the pistol to penetrate the body armor worn by law enforcement (and in effect acknowledging the severe limitations of the federal ban on armor-piercing ammunition which uses a content, as opposed to a penetration, standard to determine whether a round is "armor-piercing" or not) in January 2005 ATF announced that it had reached a voluntary agreement with FN to stop the civilian sale in the U.S. of specific types of ammunition available for the gun--including one type labeled SS192 ammunition. The effect of this gentleman's agreement between ATF (which, in an all-too-revealing choice of words, often refers to the gun industry as its "customer") and FN has been less than impressive. In writing this blog, yesterday I went on the Internet and within minutes found two sites offering "banned" ammunition for sale:
Ammunition to Go : "This is 5.7X28 FN SS192 Hollow Point Ammo. This ammo has been banned from importation because of its penetrating abilities. This ammo has been almost impossible to find for the last few years. This ammo is packed in 50rd. boxes, 2000rds. per ammo can." Fifty rounds can be purchased for $29.95, marked down from 39.95.
Gilbert's Guns: Now In Stock!. FN 5.7 x 28 SS192 Hollow Point Ammunition. This ammo has been banned from importation and we have a small qty of SS192 AVAILABLE...We do have multiple lots available. Please call to reserve this ammunition--these lots will go quickly."
As "Big Boomers" concludes:
"[T]he gun is being freely sold to civilians today, along with clearly problematic ammunition, through a variety of channels. What changed was precisely nothing. FN, like other gun manufacturers, simply followed the well-worn path of hyping its new cartridge and gun combination through widespread publicity in the gun press about 'restricted' sales to military and police, and then--having whetted the gun-buying public's appetite--moved into the much bigger and more profitable civilian market."
Anyone who doubts the proven success of this approach need only visit FN's web site to see photos of the PS90--the civilian-legal semiautomatic version of the full-auto NATO machine gun the Five-seveN was initially designed to complement.
Among those who have noticed the anti-personnel virtues of the Five-seveN are illegal arms traffickers helping feed the drug-related violence in Mexico (where the Five-seveN is known as the "mata policia," or "cop-killer") with military-bred weapons purchased from the U.S. civilian market. The recent VPC study Indicted reviewed records filed in 21 federal firearms smuggling prosecutions in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Texas between February 2006 and February 2009 and found:
"There were 501 firearms listed in the documents, with specific information about the weapon type for 492 of those firearms. Of the total of 492 firearms with detailed weapon type listed, nearly two thirds (63 percent) were either assault weapons (209 or 42 percent), armor-piercing handguns (88 or 18 percent), or anti-armor 50 caliber sniper rifles (11 or two percent). The remainder were primarily semiautomatic pistols (148 or 30 percent). Of the armor-piercing handguns, all were FN Herstal Five-seveN pistols."
The Obama administration could act today to prevent any more Five-seveNs from entering the country. The decades-old "sporting purposes" test contained in the Gun Control Act of 1968 grants ATF wide discretion to ban the import of the Five-seveN, the PS-90, and any other foreign-made, military-bred, "non -sporting" firearms. But since the agency treats the gun industry as its "customer," such an action--without direct engagement by the White House--is more than unlikely. And so far, the only consistent action from the White House on the gun issue is a virtually unmatched ability to ignore it.