THE BLOG

Executive Order M855

02/27/2015 08:20 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

The proposed BATFE action will have little technical impact on the practical protection for police officers and mostly threatens to strengthen the hand of the gun lobby in the upcoming election cycle.

As the 2016 election cycle begins, one hopes that issues such as the nation's continued struggle towards economic recovery and our foreign policy strategy to deal with a world we seem less and less able to positively influence should dominate our selection of the next president. Into this tenuous hope for a more cogent debate, the BATFE has introduced a proposed executive branch rule regarding ammunition that will likely pivot the election cycle back towards the same driving forces that caused so many blue states to turn red in the November 2014 midterm.

Fueled by a seeming need to create a "we're doing something," optical illusion, the executive branch threatens to raise the hunger of the gun lobby to fight even harder for its political values in the critical opening phases of the primaries by infuriating gun owners. In the past few years, you'd have to be living under a rock to not have realized that there's been an explosion in the market for the AR-15 rifle. Derived as a sporting version bearing the same name assigned by its inventor Eugene Stoner, the AR-15 is a semi-automatic civilian version of the military M-16 series weapons system. It has proven to be so well designed and adaptable to sporting purposes that it now rivals the prior turn of century's wonder gun, the Mauser bolt action, as the basis for evolving hunting and competition applications in the shooting sports.

To use guns in a sporting manner you need ammunition. In the American marketplace, that means lots of ammunition. It's used to plink. It's used to practice. It's used to compete. It's used to hunt. For the AR-15, ammunition comes in three principal forms. Lightweight bullet ammunition used primarily by small game hunters such as those who hunt varmints for sport to generate the carrion meat used to feed animals like the California condor so they are fed before they fly too far from their range into the selenium and pesticide farms that would poison them far faster than lead bullets. Medium weight, general purpose ammunition used by plinkers and short-range competitions shooters such as those participating in a variety of action games. And heavy bullet ammunition used by traditional target shooters as well as large varmint and medium game hunters.

The BATFE has proposed regulations to ban a type of ammunition called M855 or SS109 ammunition that has bullets that weigh 62 grains falling into the medium weight projectile range in 5.56x45mm or .223 ammunition used for general purpose plinking and competition. It happens to be, as one would expect, the sporting use segment that consumes the largest quantities of AR-15 ammunition that is highly supported by a manufacturing industry supplying this demand though a combination of commercial manufacture, contract overrun, out of spec run and inventory surplus sources. BATFE regulations would create an interruption in the supply of this "popular" use category of ammunition will set off an availability crisis that will linger and surely affect the entire 2016 presidential election. Changing factories and supply chains takes time. Commercial manufacturers will not be able to adapt their factories to switch to other forms of ammunition at the same price points to satisfy market demand fast enough. Deftly hidden within the proposed BATFE regulations, it permanently prevents American civilians from access to the cheapest and most plentiful source of general purpose ammunition, military ball ammunition production contract overruns and surplus imports. The fact is that shortages of this type affecting America's gun owners begets a powerful political unhappiness that no opposing lobbying or spinning can quell. It is a well-known phenomenon that every candidate must include in their electability calculus.

It deserves repeating. Banning this type of ammunition, the BATFE will affect the sporting use ecosystem of the AR-15 rifle and its owners who vote for at least two to three years. The true policy question should be, is such an inconvenience or encumbrance as I'm sure it will be called as it is politicized worthwhile?

To me, it does not seem to have a meritorious technical argument. The BATFE notice of proposed rule making is not convincing that M855/SS109 ammunition differs in performance from other 5.56mm ammunition that will remain available to the public other than a long and arduous lawyerly treatise that it seems to fit the description of the letter of the law. There is no evidence or analysis shown in the BATFE's proposal that indicates that its considerable technical division did one iota of analysis to determine whether this ammunition poses a unique and extraordinary threat to the soft armor of law enforcement officers any different from other AR-15 ammunition that will continue to be available.

The answer is that it does not. Whether you examine 5.56/.223 ammunition from a muzzle energy or penetration energy concentration perspective, at urban law enforcement engagement ranges, all of it does the same thing. It all hits with around three times the energy of a .357 magnum with about four times the soft armor defeat potential or "burn through efficiency" of true pistol ammunition. It doesn't matter if it's Vietnam era M193 55 grain ammunition, M-16A2 era M855/SS109 62 grain ammunition, or borrowed from the competition world Mk262 Mod 0/1 77 grain ammunition. In a gunfight with an opponent one and one half car lengths from you, it all performs about the same. All of it will defeat Level IIIA soft body armor.

In this instance, this causes me to conclude that BATFE is stretching the rubber band of interpreting the law to create bureaucratic rules a bit too much. When that happens, my smell detector goes off and I start to ask whether the rule is truly public safety motivated.

One then returns to the dramatic effect it will have on the supply-demand equation for ammunition availability for a popular rifle's owners - both left and right - impacting its most common sporting use ... and then ponder the political consequences of it. The bottom line is that what the BATFE proposes will create a physical shortage of ammunition that will in turn create a stockpile of political ammunition. I'm not really sure the country needs that right now.

6:54pm 28-Feb-2015. I have become aware that elsewhere on the internet there are rumors circulating that the White House directly ordered this BATFE rule proposal. Such conspiracy theory amuses me greatly. That people think things are that well controlled by this administration is mythical. They aren't. If this administration has a fatal flaw, it's that it has too little cohesion managing the gigantic bureaucratic apparatus under its purview. I picked the poetic title for my opinion editorial as a metaphor. It's a vehicle to remind the reader that in the aftermath of the failed legislative attempt to pass federal background checks in Congress, President Obama and his team made political promises to use every administrative means at their disposal make up for such a catastrophic political loss. This is one of those initiatives and it's come back to haunt him. It is most likely the zeal of a bureaucracy trying to please the boss too much and instead creating new problems for him to have to deal with. My maybe too subtle point is that President Obama has a complex foreign policy quagmire that he needs the entire country to help him with and he does not need any more of these politically motivated distractions that split our national support base and weaken our country's ability to find real solutions. My further point is that every candidate seeking the presidency in 2016 must be held to the same high standard of not letting political agenda driven things like this proposed rule interfere with responsibly governing this country. Hopefully this plain speak explanation is a little "easier to read".