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The Nation | ARRESTS IN SNIPER CASE

Weapon Found in Car Has a Reputation for Accuracy

The Bushmaster -- which has been linked by ballistic tests to 11 of the 13 shootings -- is a civilian version of the military's M-16.

October 25, 2002|Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The semiautomatic rifle that police found in John Allen Muhammad's car left the factory only this year. But Muhammad has been familiar with the style of rifle for decades from his service in the Army.

The weapon taken from the car, made by Bushmaster Firearms Inc., is a civilian version of the M-16, the military's fully automatic, standard-issue rifle. Muhammad won an Army marksmanship award for proficiency with the M-16.

All Bushmaster rifles use .223-caliber ammunition, the same type used in the Washington-area sniper shootings. The weapon found in the suspects' car has been linked by ballistic tests to 11 of the 13 shootings, said Michael Bouchard, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Richard Dyke, chairman of Windham, Maine-based Bushmaster, said an ATF official called Thursday morning asking to trace a Bushmaster rifle that carried a particular serial number.

A check showed that the company sold the rifle in June to a distributor in Washington state, Dyke said. He would not identify the distributor.

He said the weapon had a 20-inch barrel and a standard stock, meaning the stock did not fold or collapse for easier transport. The rifle typically uses a magazine of 10 rounds.

The weapon is illegal in California under the state's assault weapons ban, which is more stringent than a similar federal ban, said Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control advocacy group in Washington.

Dyke said Bushmaster weapons are favored by target shooters and hunters of groundhogs and other small game. Military versions of its rifles have been purchased by the FBI, the ATF and security teams at U.S. embassies and nuclear power plants, Dyke said.

He said 35 rifles were ordered Oct. 18 by police in Montgomery County, Md., where the Washington-area sniper claimed about half of his victims.

But Bushmaster weapons also have turned up in violent crime. The company made the central shooting portion of a weapon carried by white supremacist Buford O. Furrow Jr. during a 1999 rampage in which a letter carrier was killed in Chatsworth and five people were wounded at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills.

Bushmaster was initially one of several gun makers sued by a Los Angeles police officer wounded in a 1997 shootout with two North Hollywood bank robbers. Dyke told The Times in 1999 that his company was dropped from the suit because the robbers never took their Bushmaster weapon out of their car trunk.

Dyke is a Republican political donor whose ties to the company have created controversy. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Dyke resigned as the Maine campaign finance chairman for George W. Bush when reporters asked why candidate Bush was enlisting the help of an assault-weapon maker.

In the 2000 Senate race in New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign accused New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of trying to hide a $1,000 donation from Dyke. Giuliani had listed Dyke's company not as Bushmaster Firearms but as "Bushmaster Farms," the Clinton campaign said.

At least five other companies make civilian versions of the M-16. Boge Quinn, who runs the online gun magazine GunBlast.com with his two brothers, said Bushmaster weapons are more accurate and more expensive than others, with retail prices starting about $700.

"Bushmaster uses a little bit tighter tolerances. They use the best materials. Their guns are just assembled better than most, and the result is a very accurate rifle," said Quinn, of Clarksville, Tenn.

He said he and a brother recently tested two Bushmaster rifles and were impressed. One model, called the Varminter, put five rounds within 3/8-inch of each other in a target 100 yards away. "That's an extraordinarily accurate gun, a very well-made gun."

Dyke said he would prefer that a Bushmaster had not been linked to the suspects in the Washington-area shootings.

But, he added, "We know that the other 50 guys in the blue uniforms that were chasing these people were also carrying Bushmasters, so we take solace in that."

"We're really proud of what we do, and we think we do a lot of good in the world."

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Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this report.

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