This week, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) responded to immense pressure from gun owners and majorities of both houses of Congress and applied the brakes on its reimagining of the federal “armor piercing” ammunition law. Among other serious problems, BATFE’s planned move would have banned M855 “green tip,” the second most popular ammunition for the most popular rifle in America, the AR-15.
The BATFE stated its intentions in a “Framework” posted on its website on February 13, 2015. Under the Framework, BATFE proposed to change its interpretation of the federal “armor piercing ammunition” law of 1986. The new interpretation would have revoked an almost 30-year-old exemption for M855 ammunition based on BATFE’s finding in the mid-1980s that M855 was usable in commercially available rifles and therefore “primarily intended to be used for sporting purposes.”
The White House characterized BATFE’s planned clampdown as a “common sense” step upon which “everyone should agree.” As is often the case with this administration’s pronouncements, the facts proved otherwise. BATFE noted in a special advisory released March 10, 2015, that it had received “more than 80,000 comments” from the public in the preceding three weeks, and that “the vast majority of the comments received to date are critical of the framework ….” Citing “issues that deserve further study,” the agency stated it “will not at this time seek to issue a final framework.”
The BATFE’s ban was also strongly opposed by the U.S. senators and representatives that gun owners helped elect. In a letter to BATFE director B. Todd Jones on March 9, 53 U.S. senators, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), rebuked the agency for overstepping its bounds. “Congress did not, and did not intend to,” the letter stated unequivocally "ban this form of ammunition [i.e., M855]."
In a separate letter to Jones, 239 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman John Goodlatte (R-Va.), were equally forceful and direct: “The idea that Congress intended [the “armor piercing ammunition law”] to ban one of the preeminent rifle cartridges in use by Americans for legitimate purposes is preposterous.”
Additional help came from Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.), chairman of the powerful House Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. As Rep. Culberson told The Hill, “I explained to the ATF that if they continued to interfere with law-abiding Americans’ Second Amendment rights, they were going to have a very bad budget year.”
On behalf of the NRA’s five million members, NRA-ILA Executive Director Chris W. Cox thanked Chairman Goodlatte, Chairman Grassley, and Chairman Culberson for “leading the fight against this unconstitutional attack on our Second Amendment freedoms.” BATFE’s retreat from the plan, he said, “was a significant victory for our five million members and tens of millions of supporters across the country.”
Additionally, law enforcement officers, whom BATFE and the White House pretended their effort was intended to protect, objected to the ban. James Pasco, Executive Director of the Fraternal Order of Police National Legislative Office, said that M855 “has historically not posed a law enforcement problem.” While BATFE had alleged that M855 posed a “significant threat” to law enforcement officers when fired from a handgun, no law enforcement officer has been killed with any handgun capable of firing M855 during the 38 years that the FBI has reported the caliber of handguns used in such crimes.
This fact is echoed in the statements of numerous law enforcement groups that have submitted their own letters or comments in opposition to the Framework, including the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, the National Law Enforcement Firearm Instructors Association, and the National Patrol Rifle Conference. Some of these groups make the point that banning M855 ammunition could negatively affect officer safety by constricting the availability of 5.56 x 45 mm ammunition generally, thereby raising its price and reducing opportunities for police officers to train with their patrol rifles.
The NRA was first to alert gun owners to BATFE’s Framework. Within hours of the Framework’s release, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action notified its members and others who have signed up for its weekly Grassroots Alerts that the Obama administration was attempting to bypass Congress in order to achieve gun control that the Senate had rejected and the House of Representatives refused to even consider. President Obama’s goal, we noted, was to discourage Americans from acquiring the extraordinarily popular AR-15, which he had tried, but failed, to get banned in 2013, along with other common firearms and magazines.
Thereafter, NRA-ILA provided a summary of the flawed rationale that BATFE presented in its Framework, along with the email address, postal address and FAX number to which people could submit their comments to the agency concerning its proposed ammunition ban. NRA-ILA later submitted official comments in opposition to the BATFE Framework and detailing the proposal’s numerous flaws.
Yet even while BATFE was supposedly inviting Americans to weigh in on the proposal, sharp-eyed reporter Katie Pavlich discovered a curious “coincidence.” A September 2014 update to a compilation of federal firearms laws and regulations BATFE had last published in 2005 had already deleted all references to ammunition, including M855, which had previously been granted “sporting purposes” exemptions under the 1986 law.
That “error,” as BATFE later described it to Fox News, has since been corrected. As we noted in our coverage of BATFE’s decision to withdraw its Framework, however, the agency indicated that it will revisit the issue in the future. BATFE’s continued overreaching intentions were made all too clear by its director, B. Todd Jones, at a hearing Thursday before the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Any 5.56 round” Jones stated, is “a challenge for officer safety” (emphasis added). For that reason, gun owners who have not yet submitted comments to the BATFE and their members of Congress concerning the Framework still must do so, at the addresses provided here.
In the meantime, gun owners who provided comments to the BATFE and who helped elect the members of Congress who reprimanded BATFE for rewriting federal law, can take pride in again proving the power of personal involvement in the fight for Second Amendment Rights.
The BATFE’s history of reinterpreting federal laws to ban the importation of rifles, handguns and shotguns, and now to try to ban the manufacture and importation of commonplace ammunition, makes clear that those laws must be rewritten. Changing the laws will be required to not only limit BATFE excesses, but also to recognize the right of people to keep and bear arms for defensive purposes, as well as sporting and other legitimate purposes.
To achieve these important improvements, gun owners will have to help elect not only a pro-Second Amendment Congress in 2016, but also a president who respects the right to keep and bear arms, and the rule of law. As ILA Executive Director Chris W. Cox stated, “Let’s ensure BATFE’s bogus Framework is trumped by America’s Framework, the U.S. Constitution.”