Jeb Bush’s unusual and unsteady campaign to win the hearts and minds of Republican primary voters took an odd turn on Tuesday when the former Florida governor shared an image on social media of a .45-caliber handgun engraved with “Gov. Jeb Bush,” accompanied by a one-word caption: “America.”
Bush had just toured the Columbia, South Carolina, manufacturing facility of FN America, a subsidiary of the Belgian arms manufacturer FN Herstal, or Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal. Bush’s tweet blew up, with many responses noting the dubiousness of associating “America” with a foreign gun company. But that’s not the most questionable thing about Bush’s embrace of an FN Herstal product.
The company produces a wide variety of guns, for both military and civilian markets. But one of its models, the FN Five-seven, a semi-automatic pistol utilizing a 5.7-mm round, has a particularly sordid history. Developed for NATO, the gun’s power and unusual cartridge type has made it a popular gun with Mexican drug cartels, some of whom arm themselves with Five-sevens bought in the United States and smuggled across the border.
In 2009, the gun’s ability to puncture body armor helped make it the weapon of choice for Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan. In an interview with NPR, Tom Diaz, a former senior policy analyst at the Violence Prevention Center, argued that the story of the Five-seven neatly demonstrates the problems posed by the transfer of increasingly sophisticated military-grade weapons to the civilian market.
It was specifically designed for use by counterterrorism teams because it fires a very small but very high-velocity bullet that will penetrate body armor, what people call ballistic vests or bullet-proof vests.
“When FN first manufactured this gun, they recognized how dangerous it would be on a civilian market and they claimed they would never sell it to civilians, that it would only be for police and counterterrorism units. In fact, it’s become a very popular gun on the American civilian market and is exported to Mexico, where it’s called the mata policia, or police killer, cop killer.”
Variants of the Five-seven became available to the American public for the first time in 2004. The armor-piercing bullets used with the gun by law enforcement and the military aren’t available to civilian buyers, and FN discourages talk of the model’s ability to breech protective materials. But the gun’s standard rounds have a tremendous penetrative power of their own, much to the delight of its enthusiasts.
As early as 2005, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives listed the gun as one in common use by drug cartels. Federal agent Thomas Mangan told Newsweek in 2009 that the weapon was “state of the art” and attractive to cartel gunmen for their fights with rival traffickers, Mexican police officers, and the Mexican military. “FN will say its stock ammunition ‘is not armor-piercing’ but we’ve done demos and it does pierce certain types of soft body armor,” said Mangan.
The characteristics that make the Five-seven a good weapon for criminal gangs make it an ideal weapon, too, for people like Hasan. As he was preparing to attack Ft. Hood in 2009, Hasan visited a gun store in Killeen, Texas, and asked for “the most high-tech gun” available. He was given a “full 45-minute” demonstration on the weapon’s considerable anti-personnel capabilities, which he put to use three months later, killing 13 people and injuring 32 more.
Presidential campaigns are usually extraordinarily careful about the associations and connections they make on the trail. Each potential surrogate and figure who might speak on behalf of the candidate is vetted, so that the campaign can avoid unpleasantries and embarrassing headlines. Bush’s tweet indicates either that those guidelines may not have been followed in this case, or that his campaign reasoned that the target audience would be unbothered by his taste in firepower.