By Dave Kopel
March 01, 2004, 9:26 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on ammunition bans.
As the Senate considers legislation to prohibit abusive lawsuits against Second Amendment rights, Sen. Ted Kennedy is offering an amendment to ban ammunition. Kennedy claims that he is aiming at "cop-killer" bullets, but he appears to be badly misinformed on the issue.
There never has been any such thing as a "cop-killer" bullet. The issue is a fiction, invented for purposes of politics, not public safety. In any case, since 1986, federal law has prohibited the rare types of handgun ammunition that have unusual abilities to penetrate body armor.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reports that current ammunition laws are fully sufficient to protect the police, and that attempts to change these laws could actually lead to increased police fatalities. Notwithstanding this strong warning, some lobbyists and politicians continue to play on public misunderstanding, by using the so-called "cop-killer" issue to demand the power to ban standard rifle ammunition used for hunting.
The story of the nonexistent "cop-killer" bullet actually begins in 1976 in Massachusetts, when a handgun-confiscation initiative was defeated in a landslide. Then, in 1982 in California, a handgun-"freeze" initiative also lost overwhelmingly. The gun-prohibition lobbies began to realize that they would have to work more incrementally, rather than pushing for prohibition outright.
The prohibition lobbies also realized that the police were one of their worst problems. While a few police chiefs or sheriffs could always be found to support prohibition, the vast majority of police — both commanders and line officers — were "pro-gun," and extremely skeptical of gun control. Something had to be done to turn the police (or at least their Washington lobbyists) against the National Rifle Association.
The something, ironically, was an obscure type of ammunition invented by police officers two decades before. These bullets were known as KTW bullets, after the initials of the three persons who invented them for use in SWAT teams: Dr. Paul Kopsch and two police officers named Turcus and Ward.
While ordinary bullets have a lead core, the KTW bullets used brass or iron. The KTW bullet has a conical shape, and was especially designed for shooting through glass or a car door. Of course neither the KTW bullet nor any other bullet was invented for the purpose of killing police officers.
KTW bullets have not been available for sale to the general public since the 1960s.
"Cop-killer" bullets are sometimes called "Teflon bullets," but this name reflects a serious misunderstanding. For example, in the movie Lethal Weapon 3, a so-called "Teflon bullet" from a medium-power handgun was supposedly able to penetrate several inches of hardened steel on a bulldozer blade. In the real world, however, no bullet could possibly perform such a stunt.
Actually, a Teflon coating is applied to the outside of a wide variety of ordinary ammunition. Teflon reduces the lead abrasion caused by the bullet's movement down the barrel of the gun. Thus, the barrel is kept cleaner, and is protected from excessive wear. Also, reduced abrasion means that fewer tiny lead air particles are produced, so the air is cleaner — an especially important consideration at indoor shooting ranges.
In addition, a Teflon coating on a bullet also makes the bullet safer to use in a self-defense context. The Teflon helps the bullet "grab" a hard surface such as glass or metal, and thus significantly reduces the risk of a dangerous ricochet. Similarly, canes or walking sticks are often coated with Teflon, so that they will not slip on hard, smooth surfaces.
So in order to reduce ricochets, KTW bullets as well as many ordinary types of defensive ammunition use Teflon or similar substances.
As police officers know, the vests that they wear are "bullet-resistant," not "bullet-proof." The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives explains that "armor protection is rated in accordance with a specific threat. There is no such thing as 'bullet-proof' armor."
Manufactured from Kevlar (a synthetic fiber that is five times stronger than steel), body armor comes in a variety of grades. The higher the grade, the bulkier and less comfortable the armor is to wear, but the more ammunition it can stop. The highest grades of armor are often called "tactical armor" or "hard armor," and may contain steel or titanium.
At the top of the scale is Threat Level IV armor, which can stop even a high-powered rifle bullet. It takes a very strong vest to stop a big-game hunting-rifle bullet: The bullet travels at a high velocity, due to the long length of the rifle barrel; and has a large mass, since a hunting-rifle bullet must be large enough to bring down a moose, elk, or other large mammal.
Almost the only people who wear hard armor are SWAT team members on high-risk missions. Far more common for ordinary police use is "soft" body armor, made from Kevlar, and rated at Threat Levels IIA through IIIA. Level IIA armor can stop most handgun ammunition, while Level IIIA can stop almost any handgun bullet. Handgun ammunition is much easier to stop than rifle ammunition, since the handgun barrel is much shorter (less velocity) and handgun bullets are smaller (less mass).
Even before the 1986 law restricting "armor-piercing ammunition," there had never been a case of a police officer killed with such ammunition penetrating a vest. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms studied every police-officer shooting in the years 1985-94 and reported: "No law enforcement officer in the United States has died as a result of a round of armor piercing ammunition, as defined, having been fired from a handgun, subsequently penetrating an officer's protective body armor causing lethal injuries."
Indeed, the BATF concluded that in the period studied, there had not been any instances of officers being killed by any type of handgun ammunition penetrating body armor.
Unfortunately, some public officials have made misleading claims about officer safety. For example, in 1995 President Clinton announced his support for a massive new ban on many ordinary types of ammunition. In the speech, President Clinton spoke emotionally about a Chicago police officer who had been fatally shot because a "cop-killer" bullet penetrated his vest. There was only one problem with the story: It wasn't true. The officer was shot by a criminal who used ordinary ammunition. One shot hit the officer in the head. Another shot went through an opening in the vest. No shot penetrated the vest.
Although the "cop-killer"-bullet issue had no factual substance, it was politically potent. As with so many other terms invented by gun-prohibition lobbyists, the very name served to bias the debate in favor of prohibition. The national media showed little interest in reporting facts such as the origin of the KTW bullet, or that the KTW was not for sale to the public, or that no police officer had ever been shot at or killed with such a bullet, or that Teflon didn't make bullets more powerful.
Once the bait was set, the switch was made. New York Democratic Rep. Mario Biaggi (who would later leave Congress due to felony convictions involving extensive personal corruption) introduced a bill to outlaw all ammunition capable of penetrating soft body armor if fired from a handgun with a six-inch barrel. This could lead to a ban on most rifle ammunition, since most rifle ammunition will penetrate soft body armor, and many common types of rifle ammunition fit some handguns. Soft body armor is designed to stop handgun ammunition, not rifle ammunition.
When this fact was pointed out, media figures sneered that gun owners wanted to go deer-hunting with cop-killer Teflon bullets — as if deer were wearing body armor.
As the debated continued, the constant repetition of the phrase "cop-killer bullet" helped drive a wedge between Second Amendment groups and many police officers. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) — the largest rank-and-file police group in the U.S. — had been an enthusiastic supporter of the McClure-Volkmer Firearms Owners' Protection Act (FOPA), a bill to reform abusive enforcement of the 1968 Gun Control Act.
But after the "cop-killer" controversy, the police group's director switched sides, and announced that FOPA was a grave threat to the lives of police officers. FOPA itself had nothing to do with KTW or Teflon ammunition, but the FOP director's broader point was his anger over the "cop-killer bullet" issue.
Many of the friends of the Second Amendment in Congress and the Reagan White House quietly insisted that something be done to get rid of the controversy.
Accordingly, the National Rifle Association and Representative Biaggi reached a compromise: Instead of a penetration standard (which would ban most rifle ammunition), a content standard was adopted. The sale or import of handgun ammunition with a significant amount of steel, titanium, or other metal core was outlawed. (The relevant federal regulation specifies that: "armor piercing ammunition" is a handgun bullet "constructed entirely" from " tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium," or with certain kinds of jackets on the bullet.)
An important new protection in the compromise bill required that "armor-piercing ammunition" be so labeled. This prevented people from being prosecuted for the unwitting sale of the newly restricted ammunition. For example, some surplus ammunition imported from Czechoslovakia contained a solid core, rather than a lead core, because there had been a lead shortage in the Czechoslovakia when the ammunition was manufactured.
Biaggi pronounced that the compromise achieved everything he had wanted from the original bill. The NRA spread the word that the vote for the compromise would not be scored as a "wrong" vote.
Severe mandatory prison sentences were enacted for use of federally defined "armor-piercing ammunition" in a violent or drug-trafficking crime. The rarity of the actual misuse of such unusual ammunition is demonstrated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms study of firearms crime in 1985-94, which found that there had only been four prosecutions for use of the ammunition in a crime.
Unfortunately, gun-prohibition lobbies and their congressional allies have continued to call for such dangerous "experimentation," notwithstanding the strong opposition of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Under current proposals, if a bullet can penetrate soft body armor (which is designed to stop handguns, not rifles), it could be outlawed. The Kennedy amendment refers to ammunition "designed" to have "armor-piercing capability." How can one know the inner mind of someone who designed a bullet, perhaps decades ago?
The Kennedy amendment refers to rifle ammunition that has more penetrating capability than "standard" ammunition of the same caliber. In other words, a bureaucrat could decide that "standard" ammunition in a certain caliber has a certain weight and velocity, and any round with a greater weight or velocity could be administratively prohibited.
As the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives urges, the safest approach is to leave existing laws in place — rather than frightening the public and endangering the police in order to score political points. The Fraternal Order of Police agrees, and opposes the Kennedy amendment.
David Kopel is the research director at the Independence Institute.