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History Of Federal Ammunition Law . . .

Thursday, July 29, 1999

In 1966, Lorain County, Ohio, coroner Dr. Paul Kopsch, Lorain Police Sgt. Daniel Turcus, Jr., and Dr. Kopsch`s special investigator, Donald Ward, began designing special-purpose handgun ammunition for law enforcement agencies` use. The objective was to provide police with handgun ammunition capable of penetrating hard materials, such as automobile doors, cinder blocks and walls. Previous efforts by major manufacturers at producing ammunition of this general type had been only marginally successful.

Most projectiles, constructed primarily of lead, a comparatively soft metal, cannot consistently penetrate hard materials when fired at handgun ammunition velocities. In the 1970s, Kopsch, Turcus and Ward began producing their "KTW" line of handgun ammunition, featuring projectiles manufactured with case-hardened steel cores capable of significant penetration, even when fired at handgun ammunition velocities. In 1981, after experimenting with various metals and alloys, they began manufacturing their projectiles using brass as the primary element.

To prevent damage to firearm barrels caused by firing hard metal projectiles through them, KTW projectiles were coated with Teflon. Many in the media, however, incorrectly claimed that Teflon also lubricated the point of impact and significantly increased the ability of the projectiles to defeat soft body armor (often called "bullet proof vests") worn by many police officers and other individuals.

Government tests proved otherwise. The Justice Department determined that Teflon had "little or no effect on the penetrating qualities of the projectile" when fired at soft body armor, while the U.S. Treasury Department concluded that Teflon was "little more than a cosmetic additive" to the ammunition.

In January 1982, NBC TV transformed KTW ammunition into a political issue, by running a sensational, nationwide, prime-time television spectacle titled "Cop Killer Bullets." The title of the piece was as preposterous its message. KTW ammunition had never been offered for sale to the general public; it was originally intended for, and was marketed to, law enforcement and the armed forces. Additionally, no police officer had been killed with KTW or similar projectiles, a record intact to the present.

Law enforcement officials pled with NBC to discontinue its sensational reports on KTW, lest criminals learn of the virtually unknown ammunition. Placing its ratings and profits ahead of the lives of law enforcement officers, NBC not only refused to drop its coverage, but rebroadcast "Cop Killer Bullets" six months later. Not to be undone, the print media soon joined in the hype.

Publicity-hungry anti-gun members of Congress soon recognized that NBC`s "Cop Killer Bullet" term was the most exciting buzzword since "Saturday Night Special." Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) introduced "a bill to stop the proliferation of `cop-killer` bullets." Biaggi`s bill proposed a performance based prohibition, which would have outlawed any bullet that, when fired from a 5" barrelled handgun, would be capable of penetrating the equivalent of 18 layers of Kevlar, the tradename of a fiber used in the construction of soft body armor.

Technical experts of the FBI, BATF, Secret Service and police forensic labs throughout the country warned that a performance based ban would be impractical and unenforceable. The National Rifle associaition (NRA) warned additionally that it would have affected more than 85% of commonplace, conventional hunting and target shooting rifle ammunition, in addition to the specialty handgun rounds that were the intended targets of the bill. NRA joined many in law enforcement in opposition to the bill.

Federal and local law enforcement experts could not think of an acceptable approach to restricting the ammunition, but with input from the NRA, the original performance-based concept was discarded for one based upon the design and construction of the projectiles themselves. In 1986, after a four-year battle, Congress approved H.R. 3121, which prohibited the sale, other than to law enforcement and the armed forces, of ammunition manufactured with "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," other than shotgun shot required by federal regulations for hunting and other specifically-described projectiles. Upon that bill`s passage, the original sponsor, Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), said "Our final legislative product was not some watered-down version of what we set out to do. In the end, there was no compromise on the part of police safety." Despite NRA`s help in writing the law, the anti-gun lobby continues to claim that NRA opposed it.

In 1994, after the development in Sweden of another special-purpose handgun round, one never introduced in the United States, Congress again used a construction-based approach to restrict its sale, by prohibiting sales of ammunition manufactured with 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."

Modern, lightweight Level A/IIA body armor vests typically worn by police officers are capable of defeating conventional handgun projectiles, which comprise the vast majority of rounds encountered by officers in hostile encounters. According to Second Chance Body Armor, Inc., the industry leader in the manufacture of police protective vests, police officers` "chances of encountering (threats) beyond Level A/IIA are REMOTE." (Emphasis in the original)

Heavier, higher-performance vests capable of defeating more powerful rifle rounds are also readily available to police officers. However, higher-powered rifle ammunition accounts for a small percentage of the ammunition officers face in dealing with criminals.

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