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Why 'Armor-Piercing' Bullets Are Flying Off the Shelves

03/02/2015 09:57 am ET | Updated May 02, 2015
Scott Olson via Getty Images

You know that something's up in the gun business when Rush Limbaugh starts talking about gun control. And what he was talking about this past week was the decision by the ATF to create a new standard for exempting certain kinds of so-called 'armor-piercing' bullets from the ban that Congress placed on such ammo in 1986. The law was designed to prevent civilians from buying or carrying ammo whose bullets could penetrate body armor worn by police, but manufacturing exemptions were routinely granted if the ATF determined that the ammo was going to be used for 'sporting purposes,' which usually meant that it would be used in rifles, as opposed to handguns whose use usually served no hunting or sporting purposes at all.

The announcement by the ATF was picked up by Rush not because he cares a wit about guns, but because he could then go into a riff about how the 'regime' was once again using executive actions to promote liberal policies which Congress would never pass. By the time I turned Rush off and booted up my computer, the web was crawling with denunciations of the latest threat to 2nd Amendment rights, with the NRA calling the plan a "disaster" and the blogs following suit. Because what the ATF is proposing is a ban on the manufacture of the 5.56x45 round, which just happens to be a cartridge designed for the AR-15. Get rid of the ammo, get rid of the gun, right?

The ATF might have left this whole issue alone were it not for the decision by gun makers to begin manufacturing handguns chambered for 5.56x45. And this decision was based on the fact that AR-15 rifles, which had been a major part of the upswing in gun sales after the election of the Kenyan in 2008, can be turned into handguns by simply substituting a barrel of shorter length. And since the determination of what constitutes a 'sporting' cartridge is based on whether it is designed primarily for rifle as opposed to handgun use, now that civilians can start walking around with AR-15 handguns, the exemptions for sporting use of the ammunition no longer hold.

What the ATF is now proposing are exemptions for this ammunition based on a much narrower definition of the kinds of guns for which such ammo would be used. Basically, ammo manufacturers will be able to make and sell this cartridge only if it is loaded in a rimfire round (which is much less dangerous) or used in a single-shot handgun which, by definition, is rarely found in the hands of the bad guys committing all those crimes with guns. Which doesn't mean that AR-15 shooters won't have anything to load into their guns, ipso facto they might as well throw the guns away. What it does mean, however, is that the gun industry will finally have to fess up to the fact that AR-15 rifles, marketing campaigns notwithstanding, aren't really sporting guns at all.

The AR-15 sold in the United States can actually take two rounds: the 5.56x45 NATO cartridge with a 62-grain bullet, and the .223 Remington cartridge, normally loaded with a 55-grain shell. The 5.56 is also loaded with a 55-grain bullet, but the difference is that the heavier 5.56x45 penetrates more deeply, is significantly more lethal, but tends at long distances to be a bit less accurate than the 223. The 5.56x45 was adopted by the military because of its lethality, and it's a stretch to think of it as a 'sporting' round.

The gun industry is challenging the ATF ruling not because it will mean the end of 'black' guns, but because they want to have it both ways. On the one hand they want to promote AR-15s as the newest style of sporting guns for hunting or just plain fun. On the other hand, they also want to promote these weapons as the latest and greatest 'tools' for personal defense. Either way, I guarantee you that the net result of Limbaugh's rant will be a disappearance of all AR-15 ammo within the next couple of days.