60 minutes demonizes .50 caliber guns
CBS News | July 17, 2005
Fifteen years ago, Osama bin Laden sent one of his operatives to the United States to buy and bring back two-dozen .50-caliber rifles, a gun that can kill someone from over a mile away and even bring down an airplane.
In spite of all the recent efforts to curb terrorism, bin Laden could do the same thing today, because buying and shipping the world’s most powerful sniper rifle is not as difficult as you might think.
Last winter, Correspondent Ed Bradley reported on just how powerful the gun is. New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had a sharpshooter fire the department’s own .30-caliber sniper rifle and the bullets bounced off a half-inch-thick plate of steel. Then, the marksman fired the .50-caliber sniper rifle, and the bullets blew right through the steel plate.
Now, you’ll hear from a gunrunner who, just a few years ago, was able to outfit a guerrilla army in Kosovo with those powerful weapons. He was willing to talk to 60 Minutes, because now he thinks what he did was much too easy.
The gunrunner's name is Florin Krasniqi, and he is seen providing a new shipment of weapons to Albanian rebels, who are about to smuggle them over the mountains into Kosovo. After a few days' journey on horseback, the guns will end up in the hands of a guerrilla force known as the Kosovo Liberation Army, which has been fighting for independence from Serbia for nearly a decade.
Krasniqi took these guns to his family's home in Kosovo. Most of them were easy to get in Albania, but not the .50-caliber rifles. "This is, we get from the home of the brave and the land of the free, as we would like to say," says Krasniqi, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Krasniqi came to America in 1989. He was smuggled across the Mexican border in the trunk of a car with just $50 in his pocket. Today, he’s an American citizen, and the owner of a highly successful roofing business.
"This is what I do for a living," says Krasniqi. "This is how we earn the money in New York. There’s a large Albanian-American community in the New York City area."
When the war broke out in Kosovo in 1998, many of the young men volunteered to fight. Krasniqi realized he’d be more valuable raising money for the guerrilla army. Then, he started buying standard equipment at a Brooklyn Army-Navy store.
"Anything you need to run a small guerrilla army, you can buy here in America," says Krasniqi. "You have all the guns you need here to fight a war. M-16s. That's what the U.S. soldiers carry in Iraq. All the rifles which U.S. soldiers use in every war, you can buy them in a gun store or a gun show."
What gun became the weapon of choice for Krasniqi? "By far, the weapon of choice was a .50-caliber rifle," says Krasniqi. "You could kill a man from over a mile away. You can dismantle a vehicle from a mile away."
He says it can also be "very easily" used against helicopters and planes.
If the power of the .50-caliber rifle amazed Krasniqi, what amazed him even more was how easy it was to buy. Krasniqi allowed a Dutch documentary film crew to accompany him to a gun store in Pennsylvania.
"You just have to have a credit card and clear record, and you can go buy as many as you want. No questions asked," says Krasniqi.
Was he surprised at how easy it was to get it? "Not just me. Most of non-Americans were surprised at how easy it is to get a gun in heartland America," says Krasniqi. "Most of the dealers in Montana and Wyoming don’t even ask you a question. It’s just like a grocery store."
And, he says there are a variety of choices for ammunition, which is easy to get as well. "Armor-piercing bullets, tracing bullets," says Krasniqi. "[Ammunition] is easier than the rifles themselves. For the ammunition, you don't have to show a driver’s license or anything."
"You can just go into a gun show or a gun store in this country and buy a shell that will pierce armor? A civilian," asks Bradley.
"You never did that? You’re an American. You can go to the shows and see for yourself," says Krasniqi. "Ask the experts. They’ll be happy to help you." 60 Minutes asked expert Joe Vince, a former top official at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, if anyone, even a terrorist, could easily buy 50-caliber rifles.
"We are the candy store for guns in the world. And it's easy for people to acquire them here," says Vince, who adds that America is "absolutely" the best place for a terrorist to equip himself with guns.
"There’s a lot of concern about terrorists bringing weapons of mass destruction into the United States," says Bradley. "Why should we care about small arms, guns like the .50-caliber, leaving the United States?"
"Small arms are the No. 1 weapon for terrorists," says Vince. "On the newsreels about Iraq and Afghanistan, you always see the insurgents standing there with their shoulder-held rocket launchers. But in fact, that is one round, where an assault weapon can be repeatedly fired – as many rounds as you have. It’s a much better tactical weapon."
Are these small-caliber weapons used more often to kill people than large weapons? "Absolutely," says Vince.
60 Minutes asked Krasniqi how he shipped .50-caliber rifles out of the United States.
"You just put in the airplane, declare them and go anywhere you want," says Krasniqi. "It's completely legal. It's a hunting rifle."
Krasniqi says he shipped the rifles to Albania, and then the soldiers carried them onto the battlefields. He wouldn’t say how many .50-caliber rifles he sent to Kosovo, so 60 Minutes asked Stacy Sullivan, a former Newsweek correspondent, who wrote a book about Krasniqi called, “Be Not Afraid, For You Have Sons in America.”
How many guns did Krasniqi ship over there? "Probably a couple of hundred," says Sullivan. "It's easy. You're allowed to take two or three at a time. He had a group of guys that were dispersed in the U.S., some in Alaska, some in Nevada, some in California, some in Michigan, some in Illinois. And they would each buy a few at a time, and they would take them over in twos and threes on commercial airlines."
Krasniqi’s team of gunrunners never had a problem getting the guns out of the United States. But they often had to switch flights in Switzerland, and authorities there wanted to know what they were doing with such powerful weapons.
"We told them ‘We’re going to hunt elephants.’ And they said, ‘There’s no elephants in Albania,’" says Krasniqi. "And we told them we were going to Tanzania, so we had set up a hunting club here and a hunting club in Albania."
"You had to set up a phony hunting club in Albania, tell the Swiss authorities that men from this hunting club were going to go to Tanzania to shoot elephants," asks Bradley.
"Yes," says Krasniqi. "I never saw an elephant in my life, never mind shot one."
Even so, Krasniqi’s team needed evidence to support the African hunting story, so he says, "We had bought an elephant in Tanzania and set up the whole documentation, so it proved to them we are just elephant hunters."
He says he paid approximately $10,000 for the elephant. But he never got the elephant. "We were not interested in elephants," says Krasniqi. "We were interested to fight a desperate war."
Krasniqi’s shipments of .50-caliber rifles gave the guerrillas a confidence and firepower they’d never had before. But they weren’t getting enough of them. So Krasniqi broke the law by shipping the rifles out in larger quantities than customs allowed.
What was Krasniqi's largest shipment of .50-caliber rifles to Kosovo? "One was on an airplane that he filled up with weapons," says Sullivan. "And I think there were about a hundred guns in there,… 100 .50-caliber rifles."
According to Sullivan, the gunrunners transported the guns on a truck to New York’s Kennedy airport and hid them inside shipments of food and clothing destined for refugees.
"They put the palettes into a plane. Nothing gets X-rayed," says Sullivan. "It's wrapped up as humanitarian aid."
The fact that Krasniqi could smuggle a large shipment of guns out of Kennedy airport came as no surprise to the man who oversaw U.S. Customs at the time, now New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
"With the volume of shipments that leave our country and come in, I wouldn’t doubt that it’s possible to ship these guns overseas," says Kelly. "There are regulations that permit rifles to be shipped overseas. They limit the number, but there are probably ways of getting around the regulations."
"I would assume it’s safe to say we don’t have the number of customs agents who could check in that kind of detail every flight that leaves the country," says Bradley.
"No, that's true," says Kelly.
Tracking weapons as they leave the country is like finding a needle in a haystack, unless federal agents are already tracking the smugglers and their activities. Vince, a former ATF official, says Congress should pass a law that would enable law enforcement officials to maintain computerized records of gun sales, something the gun lobby strenuously opposes.
Right now, Vince says there isn't a central database for gun purchases. "There is no national registration whatsoever," says Vince. "If we had computerized all the sales of firearms, we could be looking at patterns of activity."
And Vince says this includes all those .50-calibers purchased by Krasniqi and his team of gunrunners: "People normally buy firearms for hunting, for sporting purposes and self-defense. But you don’t buy 50 of the same type of weapon – or more in this case. It would obviously, through any type of analysis, ring buzzers with customs or anybody else investigating this."
How would Krasniqi describe the gun laws in this country? "More liberal than the wildest European imagination," says Krasniqi. "You can imagine them being liberal, and they are more liberal than that."
"But you wouldn’t have been able to buy guns for the Kosovo Liberation Army if the gun laws in this country were stricter," says Bradley. "And I’m hearing you say you’re anti-gun. How can you be anti-gun when you’re buying guns to free your people?"
"I took advantage of a liberal law here in this country to help my old country," says Krasniqi. "And I believe in my heart I did it for the good. But some people can do it for the bad."