Is This Ammo 'Armor Piercing'?

Is This Ammo 'Armor Piercing'?

[Update: After reading this post, please see this one for additional comments from a source with knowledge of the situation.]

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is trying to ban "green tip" ammo, a common round for AR-15 rifles. This move wouldn't be possible without a decision that was made in the mid-1980s -- and may have been made in error.

In 1986, Congress and President Reagan prohibited "armor piercing" bullets. The law didn't define the term literally -- any rifle round that can reliably take down a deer will also pierce "bulletproof" vests -- but rather focused on rounds that can be fired from a handgun and are made of unusually hard metals. (Despite their lower lethality, handguns are easier to conceal and more popular with criminals.) And even when it came to these, the Treasury secretary, whose department then included ATF, could exempt ammo he considered to be "primarily intended to be used for sporting purposes." Shortly thereafter, the fateful decision was made: Green-tip rounds, which contain steel, were classified as "armor piercing" but given the sporting-purposes exemption.

The ammo is popular with everyone from target shooters to hunters. But ATF wants to yank the exemption, noting that, while handguns capable of firing these rifle rounds were not commercially available in the 1980s, they are available today.

Critics have been asking: Are these rounds really "armor piercing," legally speaking? Or did the ATF steal a base 29 years ago, making the legality of this ammo reliant on a subjective analysis of "sporting purposes," rather than on the simple text of the statute?

Here's the definition from the 1986 law:

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 definition was supplemented in the 1990s, after the decision had been made, but the addition isn't relevant to green-tip ammo.)

As noted above, green-tip ammo does contain steel -- but just in its famous colored "penetrator" tip. It also contains a lot of lead, a softer metal not restricted in the law. It cannot truthfully be said that the projectile or its core is made up "entirely" of the regulated metals. Yet the ATF's proposal states as fact that the ammo has a "steel core" -- and a recent press release seems to warp the standard, saying bullets are covered if they merely "include" the named hard metals.

Three decades out, it's not clear what the ATF and the Treasury secretary were thinking. I can't find any trace of it in the bureau's industry circulars, for example, including the 1986 one focused on armor-piercing ammo. And while federal guides for firearm dealers have long listed green-tip ammo as an exemption (here's the one from 1988-1989), they do not explain why an exemption was necessary. Now that the exemption is in jeopardy, this is of more than just historical import.

Yesterday morning, I got in touch with ATF to find out what the bureau's argument might be. They were not able to give me a comment within the day, but I will update this post when they send one.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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