Virginia Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles, fearful of opposition from the state's gun lobby, backed off a proposal to outlaw controversial "armor-piercing" bullets after encountering opposition from the National Rifle Association.
Baliles' office, which wrote a new anticrime package released by Gov. Charles S. Robb this week, privately solicited the NRA's views on the issue and shipped preliminary bill drafts to an NRA lobbyist in Washington. When the NRA disapproved of a draft that called for a flat prohibition on the bullets, saying it might subject law-abiding gunowners to criminal penalties, Baliles adopted a weaker version that won the organization's approval.
A Baliles spokesman says the NRA was asked to comment as a routine effort to solicit expert opinion on the issue.
"We didn't ask for their approval," said Baliles spokesman David Hathcock. "We showed it to them as an interested party, just as in the prescription drug bill [another section of the anticrime package] we made contact with the health regulatory boards."
Critics say, however, the role of the NRA in helping officials prepare the bullet bill illustrates the power of the Virginia's gun lobby, a highly organized constituency that consistently has managed to kill even the mildest of handgun-control proposals. Robb wasn't aware of the NRA's role in the drafting process, a spokesman said, but the governor did allude to the gun lobby's clout at a news conference when he was asked why his new "armor-piercing" bullet bill, one of 11 proposals in the anticrime package, wasn't stronger.
"Candor compels me to add that politics is the art of the possible," Robb said.
"God almighty," said Alexandria council member Donald Casey when told of Robb's comments. Casey, the author of a recently passed measure banning the bullets in the Northern Virginia city, said, "If they knuckled under to the NRA on this, they're really doing a public disservice . . . . The only people who have any use for these bullets are the nuts and the kooks."
"It's certainly traditional to touch base with the people you know are going to scream" about a bill, said state Del. Warren Stambaugh (D-Arlington). "But this sounds like excessive kowtowing to the NRA nuts to me."
The Robb bullet bill would impose a new five-year jail penalty for criminals who use the plastic-coated, hard-metal bullets in the commission of violent crimes such as murder and rape.
It falls short of an outright ban on possession of the bullets that was once proposed by Baliles and recently passed in Alexandria over the angry protests of the NRA and gun enthusiasts. Such a ban has been supported by some police organizations because the bullets, which have no known sporting or hunting use, can penetrate the lightweight bulletproof vests worn by many police officers.
The revision of the bullet bill followed a drafting process that included the NRA's Washington lobbying office from the outset, according to NRA officials and aides to Baliles.
Baliles floated the idea of a ban in a speech to the Virginia Chiefs of Police Association in August, saying he was considering "a constitutionally proper measure to keep armor-piercing ammunition from being used to kill or injure our police officers."
About the same time, James Baker, an NRA congressional lobbyist, says he was contacted by Baliles aides who said they were interested in preparing a bill on the subject. Baker offered his views and on Nov. 15 was sent copies of two drafts by Baliles' office, one calling for a ban and another weaker version similar to the final product.
Baker wrote back on Nov. 22 disputing the need for an outright ban of the bullets on the grounds that it could subject law-abiding gun owners to a "possible felony prosecution." The second draft, he wrote, "adequately responds to the problem and is properly directed at those who would misuse this type of ammunition."
Baliles spokesman Hatchcock said the weaker version was also adopted by the Robb administration because the Reagan administration's Justice Department has taken the same position as the NRA, citing difficulties in distinguishing the armor-piercing bullets from traditional bullets used by legitimate sportsmen.
The opposition from the NRA and other gun groups was also a factor. "We took into consideration any comments we could get," said Donald Gehring, a deputy attorney general who prepared the drafts. "Sure, we considered them the NRA and the Justice Department. You look at all the comments."
Robb was "initially skeptical" that a bullet ban could meet legislative approval, said George Stoddart, the governor's press secretary.
"He felt the chances of doing anything more than tying up the General Assembly in an emotional debate was pretty limited," said Stoddart. "But Gerry Baliles convinced him it would have a chance in this limited form."
The debate over the armor-piercing bullets has received increasing national publicity over the last year and was recently the subject of a CBS-TV "60 Minutes" segment depicting the efforts of bellicose gun enthusiasts opposed to a bullet ban on Brookhaven, Long Island. The scenario was much the same in September when the Alexandria City Council held a public hearing on the issue, says Casey.
"You should have seen the nuts who showed up for the hearing," he said. "They were calling us a bunch of communists who were trying to ruin the country."
Casey's law specifically outlaws the armor-piercing bullets by brand name, identifying the French-made Arcane bullet and the KTW, a Teflon-coated, green-tipped slug manufactured by the North America Ordinance Corp. of Pontiac, Mich. The NRA has argued that it would serve no purpose to define the bullets by brand name because "then all you have to do is change the brand name . . . . that's a red herring," says NRA lobbyist Baker.
In addition, Baker said, the whole problem is exaggerated because KTW and other armor-piercing bullets are now sold only to foreign countries. "You can't buy them in a gun store, period," he said.
Casey, though, says this is no argument against explicitly prohibiting them, particularly since there have been documented instances of police officers being shot with the bullets. "There's no over-the-counter sales of hand grenades either," he said. "But nobody questions the need for banning them."