Assault rifles, hellfire switches, .50-caliber machine guns and an arsenal of other combat weaponry meant federal agents raiding the Branch Davidian religious cult outside of Waco were simply outgunned Sunday.

It shouldn’t be that way. There’s something wrong with the government’s regulation of guns — or the lack of regulation — when wackos, zanies and zealots can stockpile an arsenal of combat weapons that gives them superior firepower over government officers assigned to enforce the law.

Four federal agents were killed and 15 others were wounded following a fierce, 45-minute gun battle Sunday morning between the heavily armed Branch Davidian sect and agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

During the initial raid on the cult’s fortified compound Sunday, the devoted followers of cult leader Vernon Howell (also known as David Koresh) drove the federal officers back with an overpowering fusillade of gunfire.

The cult members, all private citizens, even had enough firepower to force to government assault helicopters to the ground.

“The problem we had is we were outgunned,” said ATF spokeswoman Sharon Wheeler at the Monday morning briefing. “They had bigger firearms than we had.”

Clearly there some weapons and associated devices that should not be legal for purchase by the general public and others that need to be more restricted. The government also needs to have a system that does a better job of accounting for the sale and whereabouts of firearms.

Consider the hellfire switches.

Years ago the government wisely decided that fully automatic weapons — machine guns and machine pistols — represented a threat to the public’s safety and welfare. The government restricted the sale and ownership of fully automatic weapons. Later, however, someone invented an electronic device that trips the firing mechanism of certain semiautomatic weapons at a rate of fire that puts them into the automatic class. These devices, known as hellfire switches, are advertised in gun magazines and sold for about $40 at gun shows. And they are perfectly legal, which is wrong.

The Branch Davidians have publicly boasted that they installed the hellfire switches on their stockpile of weapons. These devices should be as restricted as machine guns.

For that matter, machine guns and firearms of all descriptions too easily fall into the wrong hands in America. The nation’s law enforcement agencies should not be put into the position where their lives are endangered because they are outgunned.

Violence is far too prevalent in American society now. Easy access to firearms only makes the situation worse.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.