By Dean Weingarten
It was signed by President Eisenhower. At the time, many congressmen still believed in limited government, and the act did not apply to intrastate sales or possession.
Most states, however, followed the federal lead. The law was created by a media push of yellow journalism and false statistics. There was no logic or reason for the law. There was no outbreak of “switchblade violence” nor do switchblades differ in any significant way, for criminal purposes, than many other knives.
The law did serve one major purpose. It served as a template for the media to push legislation through Congress based on nothing but emotion laden rants and false statistics, but devoid of logic, facts or reason.
Some claim that the primary impetus of the law was the popularity of the Broadway play, “West Side Story“. But West Side Story was only the climatic tip of the media frenzy that resulted in the silly law. The law has remained on the books for 56 years, and its bastard children in the states are only now being rolled back. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people have been victimized by local application of these laws.
In the middle 1980's, opposition to gun bans had dropped, and disarmists were looking for a way to drum up support for legislation restricting second amendment rights. They hit on a catchy phrase, “cop killer bullets”, and pointed to some specifically designed handgun bullets made to penetrate car bodies and early body armor. Soft body armor had become popular in the previous decade. The problem they had was that there was NO problem.
No officer had ever been shot through a vest by a bullet designed to be armor piercing, fired from a handgun. It was a fantasy problem, a mythological hypothetical.
To those who considered the bill objectively, it was designed with one purpose: to get the federal foot in the door to regulate ammunition. Once there, the effort could be expanded. It is a fairly common meme among disarmists, the general gist is: if we cannot outlaw guns under the second amendment, we will outlaw ammunition, regulate it out of existence, or tax it so that it is too expensive to use.
Opponents brought up important points. Nearly all rifle rounds will penetrate soft body armor without any special bullet construction. Handgun rounds that could penetrate soft body armor were easily made at home, with common and inexpensive tools and materials. Lt. Kane B. Robinson testified to that effect in the Senate subcommittee that Joe Biden chaired. I watched it on CSPAN,about 1983 or '84. Lt. Robinson was very effective. Senator Biden said so. Later, at the NRA convention in Milwaukee in 1984, I met and talked to Lt. Robinson's wife. She told me that after the hearing, Senator Biden tried to get her husband fired from his job in the Des Moines Police Department.
Remember, all this was for a mythological hypothetical. There was no real threat to police officers from criminals wielding handguns loaded with cartridges manufactured to penetrate soft body armor. In 1986, the NRA was in “go along to get along” mode. The CCW movement had not yet started. The “fairness doctrine” was still stifling free speech, as it had since 1949. The Internet was barely starting to evolve from ARPANET and the Defense Data Network (DDN). The NRA “compromised“, and the bill criminalizing certain kinds of ammunition passed. It outlawed handgun ammunition, or ammunition that may be fired in a handgun, if it had cores of hard metal.
Remember no officer has ever been shot through a bullet resistant vest with “armor piercing” ammunition fired from a handgun.
At the time of its passage, Neal Knox warned that it would be used to ban rifle ammunition. People would make firearms that met the technical definition of a pistol under the infamous National Firearms Act of 1934, that would fire rifle ammunition. Then hostile administrations would use the law to ban whole categories of rifle ammunition, simply as a way to strike at people that they viewed as political opponents. That has been the laws major accomplishment since 1986. In February of 1994, the BATF used the law to ban the importation and sale of 7.62×39 steel core rifle ammunition. The ammunition was popular with shooters of the SKS rifle, that had been imported by the millions from China and and the former East Bloc countries.
On 2 February 1994, there was issued an ATF encyclical placing 35 importers of “7.62 X 39mm steel core ammunition” and all Federal Firearms Licensees on immediate notice that those rounds were now considered “armor piercing.”
Quoting ATF Director, John W. Magaw, as stating “…(t)hese bullets are designed, when used in handguns, to pose a life-threatening risk to all law enforcement officers,” the notification stated:
“Recent production of handguns that are designed to fire 7.62 X 39mm steel core ammunition has resulted in the reclassification of that ammunition as armor piercing (which) can only be sold to law enforcement or governmental agencies. Prior to introduction of these handguns in the marketplace, 7.62 X 39mm ammunition was not considered armor piercing, because it was only used in rifles — primarily SKS/AK rifles.”
With this preemptive move, ATF struck a formidable blow at owners of between 7 and 8 million SKS rifles believed to be in this country, as well as those with AKs and sundry other shoulder-fired ordnance in that chambering. With a prime supply of “cheap ammo” suddenly gone, the cost of their shooting game had just gone up.
While hundreds of millions of rounds of steel core ammunition had already been imported, and remains in the hands of the American gun culture, the administration had enacted another incremental step toward federal control of ammunition sales. I am still unaware of a single case where an officer has been shot through a bullet resistant vest with a pistol loaded with this ammunition.
Virtually all 7.62×39 commercial rifle ammunition will go through the vests normally worn by peace officers. So what was the reason to ban this plentiful supply of cheap ammunition? It was all political theater to punish gun owners. Later, President Clinton banned all sales of Chinese pistols and rifles. It was a bit surprising, as Clinton granted China “Most Favored Nation” status, approved high-tech transfers that revolutionized the Chinese missile program, and was involved in numerous scandals involving Chinese funds for his campaigns.
Fast Forward 2015 & The Obama Administration
Now there is another President who disapproves of the American gun culture. And, again, the silly “Cop Killer Bullet” ban, on bullets that never did what the disarmists claimed, is being used to ban another whole class of rifle ammunition. This time it is 5.56 mm M855 and SS109 ammunition.
From the federal code, “armor piercing ammunition” is defined thus:
(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.
You can read the BATF letter asserting that they have the authority to ban this ammunition. The letter is a compilation of mischaracterizations and illogical fact grabs. It starts out with the purpose of the law:
To protect the lives and safety of law enforcement officers from the threat posed by ammunition capable of penetrating a protective vest when fired from a handgun, the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA), as amended, prohibits the import, manufacture,as manufacture, and distribution of “ armor piercing ammunition” as defined by the statute.
I have already explained why the stated purpose is a sham. Prior to the law, no officer was ever shot through a bullet resistant vest, with a bullet designed to be armor piercing, fired from a handgun, so the “threat” was entirely hypothetical. During the entire existence of the law, the 5.56 ammunition effected has been in existence, and widely available. The 5.56mm pistols have been in existence for 20 years. But there is not a single instance that the BATF can point to where this ammunition has been fired from a pistol, through a vest, and injured a law enforcement officer. Any ordinary 5.56 ammunition will also penetrate vests. It is the nature of the high velocity of the ammunition that matters, so any idea that this ban will increase officer safety is imaginary.
In 1986, after the law was passed, BATF exempted 5.56 SS109 and M855 ammunition from the ban. BATF's rational to remove that exemption from the ammunition is based on the rise in the popularity of 5.56mm AR type pistols. They fail to mention that these large, awkward, hard to conceal, and expensive pistols are almost never used in crime. From the letter:
The mere availability of handguns capable of using the ammunition made of the enumerated metals creates the potential for diversion to criminals who could use it in easily concealed firearms to defeat the protective vests worn by police officers – the exact officer safety concern targeted by LEOPA.
Notice the return to the purely hypothetical threat. Even though these handguns have been available for 20 years, and the ammunition has been granted an exception for 28 years, now, suddenly, for no logical reason, the exception must be withdrawn.
Congress should never have passed the Switchblade ban. It should never have passed the mythological “cop killer bullet” ban. Now, the Obama administration has the power to punish those it dislikes, the American gun culture.
It would be nice if Congress would simply repeal the insanity that the GCA68 has become. But, the votes are not there, yet, to override an Obama veto.
This is what happens when the media, knowing nothing of actual facts, pushes an agenda based on emotion and lies. The legislation has done nothing to increase officer safety. The implication by the BATF that officer safety would be improved by this removal of an exception that has been on the books since the passage of the law, is a blatant misstatement of fact.
Virtually all 5.56 ammunition that is fired in the same rifles and pistols that fire the SS109 and M855 ammunition easily penetrates the vests commonly worn by police officers. There is no reason to single out the SS109 and M855 ammunition. There is no “solution” to the the non-existent “cop-killer bullet” “problem”. The whole “cop killer bullet” myth is a worse sham than the “vaccines cause autism” hoax, or “Reefer Madness” also perpetrated by the media.
Disarmists push for any ban, any restriction, any legal impediment to gun ownership, shooting, defense with firearms, concealed carry, open carry, and ammunition availability. No gun is considered good; no ammunition is considered safe. The strategy is obvious. Make guns difficult enough to legally own, make shooting and hunting difficult to practice, make the carry and self-defense with guns as legally dangerous as possible, and the number of gun owners will decrease until they are politically irrelevant. The “cop killer bullet” ban is part and parcel of this strategy. It isn't working. There are more gun owners than ever, concealed carry is practiced in all 50 states, and federal court decisions are gradually restoring second amendment rights.
All of that has happened in spite of the media campaign against second amendment supporters and in favor of citizen disarmament. It has happened because the gun culture has developed new media to get around the falsehoods spread by the old media. The truth beats the lie. But only if people hear it.
About Dean Weingarten;
Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of constitutional carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and recently retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.