COLUMN ONE : Taking Aim at Exotic Bullets : Lawmakers move to regulate the ammunition industry, as the market grows for vicious rounds like Blammo Ammo. But some gun experts and police say such controls could be duds.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the low green hills that flank Wood River Creek, the largest U.S. manufacturer of shells and cartridges maintains a proud, 1,700-acre complex.

Among the buildings, corrugated metal interspersed with 1890s brick, are a company brass mill--the source for all the nation's coins as well as for shell casings--a company fire station, a company target range. Down Powder Mill Road, instructors at the company gun club teach employees and their children how to aim and shoot.

The overall effect is one of grand American tradition. After all, the Olin Corp.'s Winchester Ammunition plant has churned out multiple millions of rounds a year, unquestioned, for a century. Its lineage dates back to 1892 when Franklin Olin moved here from New Jersey.

Now, one of the company's products is making history of a very different sort. Winchester's Black Talon is an early, highly visible casualty of a growing sentiment to regulate ammunition in America.

The Talon, which forms razor-sharp barbs upon impact, is described in a gun magazine review as a shell that "penetrates soft tissue like a throwing star--very nasty." Late in November, under heavy political pressure, Winchester announced that the Talon would no longer be available to the public and would be sold only to law enforcement agencies.

Suddenly, Washington has ammo as well as weapons in its cross-hairs. The images evoked are not of the pioneers, but of Colin Ferguson, who last month allegedly used Black Talons and a 9-millimeter handgun to shoot 23 commuters, killing six, on the Long Island Rail Road. "Guns don't kill people," Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) has grown fond of repeating. "Bullets do."

Congress will entertain measures this year from Moynihan and Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to effectively ban several vicious types of rounds. Already, deep in the details of last year's federal crime bill, a Swedish bullet that penetrates protective police vests was outlawed. The bullet slipped through a loophole in a 1986 law that banned the manufacture and importing of armor-piercing ammunition.

Groups of physicians have begun writing their congressmen urging creation of a federal commission to regulate which shells can be sold. Going even further, Democratic Sens. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Patty Murray of Washington and Moynihan have each introduced bills to raise taxes significantly from the current 11% up to anywhere from 25% to 50%, on most rounds, with revenue earmarked for emergency treatment and construction of trauma centers. Rep. Mel Reynolds (D-Ill.) is pondering similar legislation.

In a country where, by and large, it takes only a driver's license to buy the means to load a gun, "it is time we began a responsible mode of licensing and reporting" ammunition sales, Moynihan said recently on the Senate floor. The current crop of bills, he said, "is a beginning."

This is the first time there has been such widespread talk of restricting ammunition during the debate over gun control that has waxed and waned for years. The industry has kept a low profile, aided by its makeup of many small companies, with the biggest players mere divisions of huge conglomerates, such as Olin or Du Pont.

The long, close look now is the result of a growing market in exotic cartridges with names like Dragon's Breath and Blammo Ammo, combined with a new upsurge in fear of violent crime and the need to finance health care reform.

The rationale is that even if gun control were to take effect tomorrow, 200 million weapons are already in private hands and would remain so, effective for many decades more. By contrast, federal officials estimate that there is only a three- to five-year supply of ammunition in circulation.

It's a rationale that is "patently ridiculous," said Kevin Steele, editor of Guns & Ammo magazine. "For the politicians, it's an easy way out. They're looking at symptoms rather than causes."

"We all share the concern about crime," said Robert Delfay, executive director of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute, a consortium formed by 15 ammo companies. "We understand what may have been the inspiration for all this and we sympathize, but it doesn't seem very well thought out."

Even some of the law enforcement figures who have led the charge have their doubts about how effective the new proposals would be. The bills take half-steps, they say, which try to mollify the substantial numbers of hunters and believers in armed self-defense. The compromises that may be necessary to win passage, they say, will not stop criminals from using loaded pistols to threaten, maim and kill.

Most of the bills would exempt .22-caliber ammo, the "plinking" shot meant for toppling tin cans, from tax increases. In deference to hunters, rifle ammo also would be left alone.

Taxing or banning some ammunition and not others "isn't too practical," said Monty Lutz, a respected ballistics expert with the Wisconsin State Crime Lab in Milwaukee. Even target-shooting ammo can kill a human being. Many handguns can use rifle rounds to accomplish deadly goals.

"There's no one ammunition used in crime," said Doreen Music, supervisor of the Los Angeles Police Department firearms lab. "It tends toward the less expensive, not that exotic stuff. It's generally whatever's on sale at Big 5." For boxes of 50 rounds, prices can range from $1 for .22 caliber bullets to $50 for the most exotic cartridges.

The other options--high taxes on all makes or a total ban--are problematic, too.

Over at Raymond's Guns and Ammo, just across the town border in Alton, the regulars gather around the register and vie to explain why.

If higher taxes are imposed on all factory-made shells, "the average citizen won't be able to afford to practice," said Earl Smith, a 61-year-old hunter and target shooter who lives nearby. "I'm not sure that having people with handguns and no practice is all that good of an idea."

"The criminals wouldn't care, though," interjected owner Donald Page. "All the times someone's broken in for ammunition, they never do leave any tax money."

Higher prices would simply mean more people would assemble their own ammunition at home, predicted Tom Hill, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Old casings can be recycled with a 2 1/2-foot-tall device, which can cost under $100. It requires drawing three levers and pulling out two buttons to outfit a shell with new primer, powder and slugs. A novice can complete the process in 35 seconds--and can soon work up to a speed of 150 shells an hour.

Beginners can even learn stove-top lead melting techniques and mold the projectiles themselves.

With a little experimentation, "you can make a handmade bullet that does anything you want it to do," Lutz said.

The specialty shells account for a small fraction of the market, but it was their rise in the intensely competitive ammunition industry that made police, doctors and, ultimately, politicians take note of a previously overlooked part of the gun-control equation.

The Israeli Desert Eagle is a .50-caliber bullet fired from a specially tailored handgun, packing a powerful punch that Lutz termed "devastating."

The Glaser Safety Slug contains bird shot pellets, causing multiple wounds. (The "safety" portion of the name refers to the projectile's tendency to stay lodged in a target rather than continuing through to inflict still more unintended damage on someone or something else.)

Distributors advertise their wares with a variety of lethal claims. In most states, it is possible to mail-order Blammo Ammo, which explodes upon impact into hundreds of small shards--"naturally, life threatening trauma and shock occur immediately." The Bolo delivers little balls, connected by piano wire, that whirl around inside--"it slices, it dices." Dragon's Breath ignites miniature magnesium fireballs--"also known as the three-second flamethrower. Use with extreme caution! Will not harm your shotgun barrel."

"What do they need these things for?" asked Dewey R. Stokes, a Columbus, Ohio, detective who is national president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

"These aren't for hunting," said Stokes, a gun owner who also has armed his daughters. "Do they want to shoot the bird, defeather it and cook it all at once?"

Though many discount the spicy names as mere marketing tools, Stokes has monitored gun magazines and catalogues with increasing alarm. As the ammunition market became saturated and then increasingly competitive, new specialties "have just become bolder and bolder over the last five years," he said.

When he heard in 1992 that the Pentagon planned to distribute the Swedish M39B to the National Guard, he mobilized officers nationwide in protest. The cartridge had slipped through a technical loophole in 1980s legislation prohibiting import of so-called "cop-killer" hollow-point bullets.

"Ammunition disappears from (Guard) armories all the time," Stokes said. "This would have made its way to the streets."

Quietly, Congress prohibited import of the M39B.

The Black Talon, which arrived on store shelves two years ago, was a matter of greater, more public concern. "It was being marketed widely to a civilian population," said Jerry Hancock, the liaison on law enforcement issues to the Wisconsin attorney general. Winchester ads trumpeted "a truly revolutionary bullet design" and gun writers, including one granted a rare visit inside the plant, wrote glowing reviews.

Lutz informed Hancock and a Milwaukee trauma center physician, Stephen Hargarten, about the Talon's new technology, a series of serrations around a hollow-point bullet that would consistently unfold into a pattern of petals once inside a victim.

One thing led to another: Hargarten began to worry about getting infected with HIV or hepatitis from an encounter with the jagged bits while retrieving a bullet from a wound. A surgeon's glove could be easily punctured. "It's like an Osterizer with blades," he said.

He and a colleague wrote an editorial for the Journal of Trauma and called on other emergency room physicians to campaign against the Talon. Over the summer, faxes and letters streamed into Moynihan's office.

The mail from doctors gave Moynihan, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a connection between bullets and health care. The Clinton Administration had been making much of the cost of violence to the overwhelmed health care system, and Moynihan made his only demand of the package so far: a tax on ammunition should help fund the reform.

He recommended a tax of 10,000% on the Talon--which would raise the price from $20 to $2,000 a box--and on the Desert Eagle. For every other handgun ammunition, except for .22-caliber cartridges widely used for target shooting, he suggested that the 11% tax levied in 1954 be increased to 50%.

The President said he was willing to consider the concept but added that he did not think the tax would generate much money and that health reform could be financed otherwise. He preferred the idea, he said, for its crime-fighting value.

Within days, Winchester had declared the Talon off-limits to the public.

"The decision . . . " said a Winchester spokesman who requested anonymity "was made in the best business interests of the company and the ammunition industry because Black Talon had become the focal point for issues beyond the control of Winchester."

Though Moynihan and other aspiring ammo-regulators praised the move, workers here were stunned. Still, even those whose livelihoods depend on ammunition have argued, sometimes bitterly, over the notion of bullet control.

The raucous noontime crowd at a tiny tavern near the plant was filled with Winchester workers recently, and they fell clearly into two camps.

"All we did was manufacture a bullet that was outstanding," said a leather-jacketed Vietnam vet assigned to Black Talon production. Indeed, the bullet had been designed to perform well on FBI tests, and it did. More than 400 police departments use the Talon. (Los Angeles is not among them.)

It apparently did well on the open market, too. Company officials would not say how many Black Talons have been sold, but the production worker said 36 million rounds had been ready for general distribution at the time the firm changed its policy.

"It stops a person," the man said. "That's what you want, is something that stops 'em." He had his own box of Talons at home, he said, in case an intruder breaks in.

"Shut up," the woman on the next stool retorted loudly. "Winchester was greedy. That was made for law enforcement and should have stayed there in the first place."

They agreed on only two things: They did not want their names published and they were certain that Winchester's decision had come too late to stave off further anti-ammo action.

Winchester officials said they oppose any added taxes but support limiting access to ammunition for people with criminal records or unstable mental histories. So far no federal legislation has been proposed to do that.

"Of course, all the employees are very anxious about the situation," said David Hatfield, business agent for Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 555, which represents 80 people at Olin.

"It's been pretty steady here," Hatfield said, and while Winchester refuses to divulge sales figures, a Standard & Poor's analyst said ammunition is responsible for about $300 million of Olin's annual business.

Nationwide, employment in small-arms ammunition manufacturing is declining, from nearly 11,000 in 1987 to about 7,000 in 1992. Much of the drop-off appears to be related to defense cuts.

"But the company (also) feels foreign competition," Hatfield added, especially from China. "And if taxation makes ammunition cost even more, then people may not buy, and Olin won't be manufacturing as much. And that could affect jobs around here."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°