The ATF Proposes a Ban on Armor-Piercing Ammunition for Handguns, the Gun Lobby Responds Predictably

03/09/2015 11:54 am ET | Updated May 09, 2015
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Last week I wrote about the decision by the ATF to ban certain types of 5.56 ammunition based on whether it could be chambered in AR-style handguns, several of which have been on the market for the last few years. And while nobody can show that any cop has ever been shot or even menaced by one of these guns, the fact that there are now weapons classified as handguns that use such ammunition means that this ammunition might be carried in one of those guns, thus constituting a violation of the 1986 'armor-piercing' law.

As suspected, once the ATF began asking for public responses to this possible change in the regulations governing the definition of 'sporting' ammunition, the usual suspects began cranking up on both sides. Mark Glaze, former head of Everytown, got himself onto Fox and Friends while Josh Sugarmann, who runs the Violence Policy Center, put out a long piece on HuffPost. Both of them argued that the ATF wasn't trying to find a back-door method of getting rid of AR ammunition, but only responding to product innovations developed by black gun manufacturers whose AR-style handguns loaded with M855 and SS109 ammo, would be capable of penetrating bullet-proof vests. I can't pass up the opportunity to mention, by the way, that the most popular AR-style handgun is made by Bushmaster and is appropriately called the "Patrolman's Pistol."

Meanwhile, not to be undone by the spate of gun-sense activity, the pro-gun folks swung into high gear, launching not only a national petition campaign through the usual social media channels, but also getting one of their Capitol Hill minions, Congressman Robert Goodlatte (R-VA) to author and circulate a letter in the House of Representatives that raised "serious concern" about the ATF's proposed new guidelines for exempting ammunition from the 'armor-piercing' ban. The letter quickly garnered over 230 signatures, and while you could probably get as many House members to sign a letter stating that the Earth was flat, I'm not so sure that the importance or true intent of this letter is clearly understood.

The Congressional letter to the ATF is a milestone for the pro-gun community because, for the first time, a significant number of elected officials are supporting the idea that the AR-style rifle should be considered a 'sporting' gun. In fact, according to the letter, such rifles are used for "target practice, hunting, organized and casual competition, training and skills development, and instructional activities." The gun industry has been trying to promote AR-style rifles as 'sporting' guns because the market for real sporting guns -- hunting rifles and shotguns -- is drying up. Millennials don't hunt, but they do grow up playing video games, and the most popular games are shooting games which feature black guns.

The Congressional letter is important in another respect because it raises an issue that is toxic to the pro-gun crowd; i.e., the idea that something related to guns is being banned. Here's the relevant quote: "Under no circumstances should ATF adopt a standard that will ban ammunition that is overwhelmingly used by law-abiding Americans for legitimate purposes." I don't know if the NRA wrote this letter for Goodlatte or not, but to refer to the new ammunition guidelines as a method to "ban" ammunition is to guarantee that every gun-owning activist in America will climb on board this campaign.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not criticizing groups like the Violence Policy Center for framing their side of the argument by supporting common-sense policies that will protect cops. But if the intent of the framework is only to keep people from using the 'armor-piercing' ammo in new handgun designs, why not just issue an advisory letting everyone know that loading M855 or SS109 ammo into a semi-automatic handgun was against the law? The gun-sense community had to know that the ATF's decision to withdraw the exemption for all uses of this ammo would be construed, rightfully, as a ban. Want to take the short odds on the ATF in this argument? I don't.