Feds mull looser regs on armor-piercing bullets as Obama calls for end to gun violence


While President Barack Obama is calling for a high-level study to come up with ways to end the nation's "epidemic of gun violence" in the wake of last week's schoolhouse massacre, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is seeking comments on the possible easing of regulation on armor piercing bullets.

On Dec. 6 — eight days before the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn. —  the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action sent out an alert to members urging them to weigh in on the request, which the ATF made after receiving requests from unnamed sources to review its policies. The comments period closes at the end of the month.

MORE: For data on the gun debate, see the Sunlight Foundation's resource page.

Meanwhile, the president has tasked Vice President Joe Biden, pictured right, to lead an interagency group to explore responses to last week's shootings.

Here's the notice, published on the ATF's website:

"ATF is seeking public comments on specific projectiles or projectile cores which  may be used in a handgun and which are constructed entirely from one or a combination of tungsten, alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium, copper or depleted uranium, and whether these projectiles or projectile cores pose a threat to public safety and law enforcement, or are, "primarily intended to be used for sporting purposes" and therefore may be exempted from classification as "armor piercing ammunition."

The request for comments — which is not yet part of a formal rulemaking process and therefore is not available on regulations.gov –– is in addition to a series of meetings that the ATF held in late November with law enforcement officials, gun control groups, representatives of the firearms industry, and gun rights groups according to this document posted on the ATF website. 

At issue: ammunition that is banned for handguns under a 1986 law because it can pierce body armor. The purpose of the law, says the ATF, was "to protect law enforcement officers by regulating the ammunition that could be loaded into a handgun and would penetrate an officer's bullet resistant vest." 

However, law provides for an exemption from the definition for any projectile "which the Attorney General finds is primarily intended to be used for sporting purposes."

With large caliber handguns now being manfactured that take rifle-caliber bullets, there are requests for an exemption so that certain ammunition that can be used in both rifles and handguns remain legal. 

The ATF says it is caught between two problems–protecting police officers versus the rights of hunters. "In developing ATF's criteria, we recognize that a broad exemption will necessarily encompass many projectiles that may pose a danger to law enforcement officers," says the agency. "However, in developing a narrow sporting purposes test, ammunition in traditional hunting calibers will become regulated."

Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit group that works to reduce violence, says any change in the rule would be a mistake. "There is no rationale that would justify allowing the sale of any handgun ammunition that can pierce body armor and endanger first responders," she told Sunlight.

Comments are due by Dec. 31. A call to the ATF was not returned by the time of this posting. Sunlight has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the comments submitted to the ATF, as well as records of the meetings the agency held with stakeholders.

(Photo credit: Pete Souza/The White House)