THE BUREAU of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was set to ban armor-piercing 5.56mm “green-tip” bullets. Then the letters started coming in — more than 80,000 comments in total, mostly hostile to the agency’s proposal. One stung most of all: A dispatch signed by 236 members of Congress blasted ATF’s plan as “untenable” and “preposterous.” The bureau announced Tuesday that it is putting its proposal on hold, before the public comment period even closes. The National Rifle Association declared victory and warned that “every gun owner in America needs to understand Barack Obama’s hatred of the Second Amendment has not changed.”
What’s “untenable” and “preposterous” about this episode is the federal government’s paralysis in the face of the NRA, which construes nearly every potential gun regulation, no matter how sensible, as an intolerable violation of the Constitution.
Though the NRA accused Mr. Obama of trying “to impose his political agenda through executive fiat,” it was Congress that decided, in 1986, to ban ammunition that criminals could use to pierce the body armor worn by police. Today’s dispute concerns how wide a loophole Congress wrote into the law when it also decided at that time to permit the continued sale of ammunition primarily intended for sporting purposes.
The green-tip ammunition has been sold under that exception because it couldn’t be used in handguns. Until recently, that is: A handgun for sale can fire green-tip bullets — legal, armor-piercing ammunition that can be loaded into a concealed weapon and fired at police officers. If Congress’s 1986 armor-piercing bullet ban restricts the sale of anything, ATF pointed out in its recent policy proposal, ammunition that meets those criteria shouldn’t be allowed on the market.
ATF’s critics in Congress point out that the bullets have become popular for use in semiautomatic AR-15 rifles, which aren’t typically found at crime scenes. (Never mind that just such a gun was used in the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, Conn.) Even if that weren’t so, the bullets should be off the market now that they pose precisely the sort of threat to police that Congress legislated against in 1986. Taking them off the market would not be a stealth ban on AR-15 rifles. The rifles can use other types of bullets.
ATF hasn’t withdrawn its proposal. It says it needs more time to evaluate the public comments that it has received and to study some substantive issues raised in them. The agency, however, won’t specify what those issues are. Once it processes the blowback, it should defend its sensible position.
The proposed ban on certain armor-piercing bullets won’t end gun violence; background checks are more important. It’s not even the important gun-related issue on the table at the moment; significant gun legislation is pending in several states. But it is the correct and sensible interpretation of the law. That should be sufficient.