As it wanes, the Obama administration grows bold, and even reckless, on matters that send a thrill up the leg of its most leftward supporters. Its new attack on so-called armor-piercing ammunition — which is, in reality, a very broad attack on ammunition across the board — is a dangerous and destructive example of the administration’s late-days slide into rule-by-decree.
A little background, which is unavoidably weedy: In 1986, Congress revised the Gun Control Act, inserting prohibitions against the manufacture and import of “armor-piercing ammunition.” Armor-piercing ammunition does not mean ammunition designed to defeat body armor — that would be too simple. It means, most broadly, ammunition that could defeat the soft body armor of the sort that was cutting edge in the 1980s. But banning all such ammunition as “armor-piercing” would have meant a ban on practically all hunting rifles. One of the truly ignorant and insipid aspects of our gun-control debate is that the gun-grabbers spend so much time wringing their hands over “assault rifles,” which are relatively low-powered but kinda-scary-looking firearms generally chambered for rounds (mainly the .223) that are too small even to legally use for deer hunting, while at the same time insisting that they do not wish to bother us about hunting rifles, which generally are much, much more powerful than the AR-15s that so dominate the progressive imagination.
So, “armor-piercing” came to mean ammunition made of certain materials (tungsten alloys, steel, etc.) that could defeat certain kinds of body armor and that could be fired from a handgun. But, again, similar problems crop up: Almost all rifle cartridges could be fired from a handgun, because there are handguns chambered for all manner of cartridges. The classic American rifle cartridge, the .30-06, can be fired from certain handguns, as can classic big-game rounds such as the .45-70, which is popular among moose and grizzly hunters (as well as non-hunting hikers and campers who wish to be prepared for a moose or grizzly encounter). So that leads us to another refinement: an exemption for single-shot handguns. “The term ‘single shot handgun’ means a break-open or bolt action handgun that can accept only a single cartridge manually, and does not accept or use a magazine or other ammunition feeding device. The term does not include a pocket pistol or derringer-type firearm.” So sayeth the ATF.
It’s almost as though the agency is reasoning toward some specific, predetermined goal, isn’t it?
“Sporting exemptions” have been handed out fairly commonly for ammunition that might otherwise be classified as armor-piercing, and requests for those exemptions have become much more common as environmentally minded sportsmen and the firms that supply them look for alternatives to lead-based bullets, which can poison carrion-feeding animals such as the California condor. California prohibits the use of lead-based bullets for hunting in the condor’s range, and other states have some restrictions, too. These non-lead bullets made of steel or alloys are not designed to pierce body armor; they’re designed to keep unnecessary lead out of the environment and out of the alimentary canals of wild animals. But their composition means that they can be classified as armor-piercing rounds, if the feds can find an excuse to do so.
The upshot of all this maneuvering is that the ATF intends to revoke the sporting exemption for certain popular kinds of .223 ammunition, allowing it to be reclassified as armor-piercing and therefore banned, even though it is not designed as armor-piecing ammunition and has no special armor-piercing characteristics. The reason for this is that the feared and hated AR-style rifle has been enjoying a new career as a handgun. This is yet another consumer response to federal regulation: Some people prefer short-barreled rifles, particularly for home-defense situations when they will most likely be used indoors, but federal law makes short-barreled rifles a special category of weapon that requires additional permits and taxes, and some jurisdictions ban them outright. But if you remove the shoulder stock from an AR-style rifle, it’s not a rifle — it’s a handgun, albeit one of the clumsiest and goofiest handguns on the market. But the fact that there is a multi-shot handgun commercially available for those non-lead .223 rounds means that such ammunition can be banned as armor-piercing, even though it is not armor-piercing ammunition, by use or by design.
So, everybody goes back to lead, right?
Wrong. Environmental groups have been pressuring the EPA to begin regulating — or to ban outright — lead ammunition under the Toxic Substances Control Act. They lost their most recent round when the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the EPA lacks statutory authority to regulate lead ammunition, but when has statutory authority stopped the Obama administration? The FCC has no statutory authority to enact net-neutrality rules — that’s why it has reached back to a 1930s, New Deal–era law for justification. You can be sure that the campaign to use the EPA or other federal agencies to ban lead ammunition is far from over. The U.S. Humane Society already is petitioning the Interior Department to ban lead ammunition on public lands.
What gun-rights advocates fear — not without reason — is that this is the beginning of a pincer movement, with the ATF banning non-lead ammunition as a threat to armor-wearing police officers and the EPA banning lead ammunition as a toxin. Never mind that there is no epidemic of police officers being gunned down, despite their body armor, by hoodlums carrying AR-style pistols. The use of such weapons in crimes is so vanishingly rare that no police agency even bothers to track them as a category.
But they look scary.
There is no reason to assume that this will stop with .223 ammunition popular for scary-looking AR-style rifles. There are multi-shot handguns, mostly revolvers, chambered for many kinds of rifle cartridges, meaning that the armor-piercing designation could be applied to all sorts of ammunition for hunting rifles.
In a sense, the gun-grabbers were telling the truth when they said that they had no designs on our sporting rifles. But the ammunition for those rifles is another story.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent of National Review.