The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has unveiled a new “Framework For Determining Whether Certain Projectiles Are ‘Primarily Intended For Sporting Purposes.'” Under that rather bland rubric, ATF says that it will prohibit the sale of ammunition using the M855 bullet, which includes some of the most common types of ammunition used in AR-15 rifles.
This gets rather technical, but briefly, what we are talking about here is the projectile, or bullet. The M855 bullet has a lead core and a steel tip. It is commonly used in 5.56 and .223 cartridges. ATF proposes to ban the M855 as an armor-piercing projectile under the Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act of 1986 and the Gun Control Act of 1968. These laws generally prohibit the sale of armor-piercing ammunition in order to protect law enforcement personnel who wear bullet-proof vests.
Under the statutes, whether a bullet is armor-piercing depends on its materials. A bullet made entirely from steel or certain other materials is considered armor-piercing. However, the NRA argues:
[The M855] does not, however, have a core made of the metals listed in the law; rather, it has a traditional lead core with a steel tip, and therefore should never have been considered “armor piercing.”
Nevertheless, ATF classified the M855 projectile as armor piercing some time ago. Until now, it has been legal because the 5.56 and .223 cartridges in which the M855 is used have been exclusively rifle ammunition, and the definition of armor piercing ammunition includes the requirement that it “may be used in a handgun.” What has changed, according to ATF, is that 5.56 and .223 cartridges that include the M855 steel-tipped bullet can now be used in AR-15-style handguns:
As a result of the availability of these handguns, however, some conventional rifle ammunition now falls within the statutory definition and is properly classified as “armor piercing ammunition,” despite the fact that the ammunition itself has not changed.
Does ATF’s action make sense? Not really. The point of the statutes at issue is to protect law enforcement personnel against armor-piercing bullets fired from concealable handguns. ATF recognizes this purpose:
However, that analysis also necessarily implicates the officer safety concern LEOPA was designed to address—ammunition containing armor-defeating metals that may be fired from relatively small, concealable firearms.
AR-15-style pistols are not small or concealable. This, for example, is SIG Sauer’s P516 pistol. It is 23″ long:
No one is going to take a police officer by surprise with a 23″ long weapon. The Washington Examiner quotes a former officer:
“Criminals aren’t going to go out and buy a $1,000 AR pistol,” Brent Ball, owner of 417 Guns in Springfield, Mo. and a 17-year veteran police told the Springfield News-Leader. “As a police officer I’m not worried about AR pistols because you can see them. It’s the small gun in a guy’s hand you can’t see that kills you.”
Moreover, a knowledgeable reader who works in the firearms industry points out that the “armor piercing” quality of a steel-tipped bullet is really irrelevant. Essentially all rifle ammunition will pierce the vests worn by police officers:
The ban is silly for a lot of reasons. It has been claimed that the ban will protect police officers from this armor piercing ammunition, but in truth ANY ordinary ammunition in .223 / 5.56 caliber will defeat virtually all bullet proof vests worn by police officers, regardless if the bullet is armor piercing or not. This is the nature of center fire rifle ammunition, and its very high velocity relative to pistol ammunition, not to mention long skinny bullets relative to short fat pistol bullets.
Critics of the ban suggest that the Obama administration is trying to achieve a ban on AR-15 rifles through the back door. This ATF standard won’t achieve that result by itself, of course, as most AR-15 ammunition will remain legal. But the fear is not irrational; liberals have openly argued for attacks on ammunition as an indirect means of achieving gun control.
Comments on ATF’s proposed new rule remain open until March 16. In the meantime, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte has written to object to the M855 ban; his letter is here. It says, in part:
The effects of these restrictive interpretations are untenable. For example, since 1986 ATF has considered the M855 5.56 x 45mm cartridge to be “exempt” under the sporting purposes test (although its core contains a substantial amount of lead, raising questions about its classification as “armor piercing” in the first place). ATF has now rescinded that exemption because repeating handguns that fire the M855 round are commercially available. Yet this round is amongst the most commonly used in the most popular rifle design in America, the AR-15. Millions upon millions of M855 rounds have been sold and used in the U.S., yet ATF has not even alleged – much less offered evidence – that even one such round has ever been fired from a handgun at a police officer. The idea that Congress intended LEOPA to ban one of the preeminent rifle cartridges in use by Americans for legitimate purposes is preposterous.
While the banning of these popular cartridges is the most visible and immediate effect of ATF’s shifting policy, the “Framework” has other serious implications. It will, for example, inhibit the development and use of rifle ammunition containing non-lead materials, even as efforts are afoot both at the federal and state levels to impose bans or restrictions on lead ammunition. The eventual collision of these trends could result in drastically reduced options for lawful ammunition users.
Which, one suspects, is what the Obama administration has in mind.