THE D.C. CITY COUNCIL has before it legislation drafted by its judiciary committee that would prohibit the police department from giving officers hollow-point bullets as standard issue for use in service revolvers. (The proposed legislation does allow hollow-point bullets to be used in "special circumstances" - though those circumstances are not specified in the bill.) But the wording of the legislation would not prohibit officers from buying their own hollow-point shells for their service revolvers.
This is a sensitive issue, for it involves not only the safety of police officers, but also a concern for the innocent bystander caught up in an exchange of gunfire between suspected criminals and the police. To understand the difficulty of the decision confronting the council it is important, first, to consider the question of why policemen shoot at all. The answer, quite bluntly, is that, when policemen fire their weapons, they are under instructions to shoot to kill. The question then becomes whether hollow-point bullets are more effective than the round-nose bullets that the department used until last January.And the answer to that is that, while the impact of the hollow-point bullets is more devastating, the relative effectiveness of the two types of shells depends in large measure on the level of marksmanship. In other words, the greater the accuracy, the less difference it makes which bullet is used.
This brings us to the level of marksmanship on the local police force - or on any police force - and to the possibility that the issue could readily be resolved by prohibiting the hollow-point bullet while instituting training programs to upgrade marksmanship. But there are practical limits to this approach. The revolver is not a precision instrument, at best, and while there is no doubt that the shooting skills of local police officers could be improved, judging from scores on the firing range in recent years, the initial training and regular refresher courses would be time-consuming and distracting from other demands.
Does this, then, argue for a switch to the more powerful hollow-point bullet? There is no doubt, apparently, that in certain situations hollow-point bullets have more "stopping power" (the force to knock someone down when he is hit). But even so, in the course of extensive hearings by the committtee, it did not seem to us that a persuasive case was made that this difference is substantial, except perhaps in the confidence it gives an officer. And against it must be weighed the greater risk to bystanders from a bullet that is not only more lethal, but also more likely to maim those it does not kill.
Other jurisdictions, notably New York City and Los Angeles, have wrestled with this question and have decided to ban hollow-point bullets. Those decisions were based on the excessive harm to bystanders caused by the bullets, a lack of evidence that "stopping power" was a decisive factor - and the fact that a large proportion of gun wounds inflicted on policemen come from their own weapons.
We commend this record to the city council. But we would add one thought about the judiciary committee's recommendation. If a ban on hollow-point bullets is to mean anything, it will have to be enforced by strict regulations backed up by disciplinary action against officers who seek to circumvent the prohibition by turning to the open market to obtain hollow-point bullets on their own.