Green-Tip Ammo: An Update

Green-Tip Ammo: An Update

Regarding my story from this morning, I was able to talk to someone with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Green-tip rounds "were classified as AP [armor piercing] in 1986 because the steel penetrator is what is considered the core," my source said. "It's the regulatory process, and everyone can argue semantics and perhaps it's not written very well, but that is the story behind it. ... Having the additional component behind the tip isn't enough to get it out of AP classification."

The source also said that the Treasury Department (which then housed the ATF) corresponded with the legislators who were drafting the law in 1985, and in those discussions it was made clear that green-tip ammo would be classified as armor-piercing. "Apparently that didn't prevent anything from moving forward," the source said.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

Update: I've done some digging through the congressional record (no thanks to the federal government) and can flesh out the history a little bit.

The Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act grew out of H.R. 4, introduced in January of 1985. The initial definition was pretty similar to the final one:

The term 'armor piercing ammunition' means ammunition containing a projectile or projectile core that is constructed entirely (excluding the presence of traces of other substances) from one or a combination of any of the following: tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass. bronze, beryllium copper, or uranium.

When asked later that year, Treasury Department assistant secretary John M. Walker said that the definition (as well as that of H.R. 13, a similar bill introduced at the same time) would cover "certain recently developed military cartridges, such as the NATO 5.56x45mm cartridge, which utilize a hard metallic penetrator," a clear reference to green tips. He went on to note, however, that Treasury would exempt, on "sporting purposes" grounds, "various high powered sporting cartridges which are intended for use against dangerous game." He added, "It should be pointed out that body armor was never intended to provide protection against cartridges of this power, and even if ammunition of this type were loaded with projectiles constructed entirely from lead, body armor would not provide protection against them."

Some concerns were raised about the initial definition, including that it wouldn't cover rounds that shipped with the cores separate, for assembly later. The bill morphed into H.R. 3132, and the Senate suggested amended language:

The term 'armor-piercing ammunition' means solid projectiles or projectile cores constructed from tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium which may be used in a handgun. ... The term 'solid' ... means made entirely from one or more of the substances specified therein, but may include the presence of trace elements of other substances.

Which the House changed to:

The term 'armor piercing ammunition' means a projectile or projectile core which may be used in a handgun and which is constructed entirely (excluding the presence of traces of other substances) from one or a combination of tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium.

This was the final text.

We do have a little bit of an original intent vs. original public meaning issue here: Even if Congress intended for green tips to be considered "armor piercing," the words of the law quite arguably do not say that. It's a little odd to refer to the tip of a bullet as a "core."

That said, given the history, I doubt a court challenge would be very effective. Not only did Congress intend the outcome, but courts are often deferential to bureaucrats' readings of ambiguous laws. The use of the indefinite article -- a projectile or projectile core -- leaves open the possibility that a projectile, like a computer processor, can have more than one core. It would be different if the statute said "a projectile or the core of a projectile" or "a projectile or its core."

The "sporting purposes" exemption can't give green-tip fans much hope, either, at least until the Justice Department is staffed by a different administration. The current statute exempts projectiles "which the Attorney General finds [are] primarily intended to be used for sporting purposes." That's very broad language; it basically places the entire decision in one person's hands.

Update II (March 10): Prince Law has the ATF's 1986 letter announcing the exemption. David Higginbotham in Guns America notes that patents often refer to "cores," plural, when the projectile has more than one chunk of metal in it.

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