M855 ban is Congress’ fault

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UPDATE: WE WIN!  Well, sort of.

A lot of people are mad at the ATF for moving to ban M855 ammo for our AR-15’s. They (rightly) see it as a backdoor way to punish gun owners who are doing nothing wrong, with absolutely no public safety benefit. They do the same thing every time they rule something is or is not a “sporting” shotgun, or come up with ludicrous lists of parts that must be “made in the USA” to qualify a rifle under § 922(r). Really, how stupid is it that a mag change can make you a felon?

Bob Owens makes a decent argument that the law in question doesn’t permit the ATF to ban M855; hopefully the courts will sort this out. But at bottom the problem is with Congress passing vague laws and leaving it up to others to actually make them work.

The ATF’s technology branch is charged with understanding this law:

18 U.S.C. § 921(a):

(17)

(A) The term “ammunition” means ammunition or cartridge cases, primers, bullets, or propellent powder designed for use in any firearm.

(B) The term “armor piercing ammunition” means—

(i) 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; or

(ii) a full jacketed projectile larger than .22 caliber designed and intended for use in a handgun and whose jacket has a weight of more than 25 percent of the total weight of the projectile.

(C) The term “armor piercing ammunition” does not include shotgun shot required by Federal or State environmental or game regulations for hunting purposes, a frangible projectile designed for target shooting, a projectile which the Attorney General finds is primarily intended to be used for sporting purposes, or any other projectile or projectile core which the Attorney General finds is intended to be used for industrial purposes, including a charge used in an oil and gas well perforating device.

 

So, setting Mr. Owens’ competent arguments about how this doesn’t cover M855 aside, what do half of these words mean? What is brass? Traditionally, an alloy of copper and zinc. Bronze is traditionally copper and other metals, often tin or arsenic. But many “bronze age” artifacts are actually brass, despite the name. How much beryllium goes into your copper (the standard material for bullet jackets) before it’s “beryllium copper”?

And, what does it mean for a bullet to be “larger than .22 caliber”? We all know that “.38 caliber” bullets are actually more like .357” in diameter (with .38 referring to the case diameter). Except that 380’s are .355, like 9mm—and 9 millimeters is actually .3543” if you do the math. So…is “.223” larger than .22? I don’t see how you can say for sure.

When is a round “intended for use in a handgun”? There are carbines firing most pistol calibers, and handguns, especially hunting handguns, firing most rifle rounds. They have to make this distinction for the purpose of deciding whether to sell ammo to someone between the ages of 18 and 21, too.

And what is a “sporting purpose”? Does hunting count? You’d think so. But the law doesn’t actually focus on how you use a gun; it’s about how the gun looks (much like the late, unlamented “assault” “weapons” “ban”).  And “sporting purpose” pops up all over the place, and it’s why you have to worry about the magazine floorplates in your AK—because only rifles intended for a “sporting purpose” can be imported. Murder weapons, at least as the geniuses who wrote the law understand them, those we make strictly domestically.

It’s easy to complain about the ATF being arbitrary. Because they are. But let’s face the real enemy here: utterly vague laws passed by Congress to “do something,” even when there’s nothing to be done. Standard rifle rounds—even hunting softpoints—fired from a rifle will defeat soft body armor. Fancy-pants 9mm rounds with brass jackets won’t. There’s no magic “armor piercing” bullet you can stick on top of a few grains of Bullseye and go cop hunting. But Congress has to “do something” so they do something idiotic.

I kinda feel bad for the ATF guys, who, if we presume they have the best intent in the world and want to do right by the Second Amendment, have to put up with this sort of nonsense. Not too bad, because nobody forced them to get jobs at the ATF. But if we don’t like what they’re doing, we should pressure Congress to fix it. Hey, John Boehner! You have a majority. Use it!

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