Chalk up another loss for public safety at the hands of the gun lobby.
Nearly 30 years ago, the federal Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act banned the manufacture and sale of armor-piercing "cop-killer" bullets that could be fired from handguns. But echoing existing law, it also allowed exemptions for ammunition "primarily intended to be used for sporting purposes." It eventually fell to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to determine what ammunition qualified for that exemption.
From 1986, when the law went into effect, to 2011, few manufacturers sought exemptions, and the ATF granted only two, for "green tip" 5.56 mm steel-core bullets in SS109 and M855 cartridges, which can be fired from AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, and .30-06 M2AP cartridges, which fit a range of rifles. Both cartridges are popular among target shooters and hunters.
But over the last few years, the ATF has received more than 30 new exemption requests from ammunition manufacturers, in part as a result of environmentalist pressure to bar hunters from using lead bullets, which wind up poisoning wildlife that ingest them. Some of the alternatives to lead that manufacturers have turned to, such as tungsten and steel, meet the law's armor-piercing definition, and thus require an exemption. At the same time, gun makers began marketing semi-automatic handguns that can fire the exempted SS109 and M855 cartridges.
In response, the ATF last month proposed a pragmatic new framework for determining which ammunition would qualify for the "sporting purposes" exemption, and concluded that the armor-piercing "green tip" SS109 and M855 cartridges must lose their exemption because they can now be fired from the new handguns. The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Assn., reacted with its usual fury, accusing the government of trying to effect an AR-15 rifle ban by barring bullets — even though, according to the ATF, there are at least 160 other cartridges available for AR-15 rifles. More than 80,000 people submitted responses during the first three weeks of the monthlong public comment period, primarily in opposition. And majorities of both the House and Senate urged the ATF to drop the proposal. Members of Congress also introduced a bill to strip ATF of its regulatory power over ammunition.
On Tuesday, the ATF caved and announced that it was mothballing the new framework. That's a deplorable decision, but not just because it means "cop-killer" ammunition that should be banned under the 1986 law will remain available. The government has allowed itself to be bullied by the gun lobby, which with its defense of these armor-piercing bullets has in effect aligned itself with violent criminals and against public safety.