By Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute
7/31/00 12:05 p.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on ammunition bans.
Why was Dick Cheney one of 21 representatives to vote against a ban on so-called "cop-killer bullets"?
Al Gore's surrogates would have you believe that Cheney supports the murder of police officers. In truth, the Cheney vote was a vote for truth over lies, and principle over expediency. There never has been such a thing as a "cop-killer bullet." That the issue ever arose in Congress shows that modern Washington is just as susceptible to believing impossible things as was the English Parliament that made it a felony to use "Witchcraft, Inchantment, Charm or Sorcery, to tell where Treasure is to be found, or where Things lost or Stolen may be found."
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. (Hence the current Gore proposal to require everyone to get a federal license to buy a handgun. Once the licensing system is in place, it can gradually be made ever-more difficult, by administrative fiat, for anyone to actually get a license.)
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 involved in law enforcement who invented them for use in SWAT teams. While ordinary bullets have a lead core, the KTW bullets used denser metals, and therefore had greater penetration ability. The bullets had not been available for sale to the general public since the 1960s.
Despite the fact that the KTW bullets were not on sale in any gun store in the United States, NBC television discovered them in 1982 and announced that they were a tremendous threat to police lives. The "cop-killer bullet" scare was born.
With the kind of self-righteous ignorance that characterizes most of the old media's handling of the gun issue, the bullets were described as "Teflon bullets." Supposedly, the Teflon coating allowed the bullet to penetrate a policeman's "bulletproof vest." Actually, a Teflon coating is applied to the outside of a wide variety of ordinary ammunition, and has nothing to do with better penetrability. Instead, the Teflon reduces the lead abrasion caused by the bullet's movement down the barrel of the gun.
Penetrability, on the other hand, is based on the kinetic energy carried by the bullet. Kinetic energy, as every first-year physics student knows (perhaps nobody in the old media ever took physics) is the product of velocity and mass. (More precisely, kinetic energy is equal to 1/2 the mass times the velocity squared. Penetrating ability is also influenced by the shape of the bullet and the hardness of its surface.) Since tungsten has a higher density than lead, a tungsten-core bullet will have greater mass, and therefore greater kinetic energy, and therefore greater penetrability.
As actual police officers know, the vests that they wear are "bullet-resistant," not "bullet-proof." The 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 that it can stop.
At the top of the scale is Threat Level IVA armor, which is ceramic, and 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 very high velocity, due to the long length of the rifle barrel; and has a high mass, since a hunting-rifle bullet must be large enough to bring down a moose, elk, or other large mammal. The main people who wear Threat Level IV or IVA ceramic 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 II through IIIA. Level II armor can stop some 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).
The gun-prohibition ventriloquists and their old-media dummies had worked the first stage of the scam: warning the public about the "cop-killer bullet." Never mind that it wasn't on sale. Never mind that there had never been a known instance of a police officer being shot at, let alone killed, with such a bullet.
The bait was set. Now for the switch. Rep. Mario Biaggi (who would later leave Congress due to felony convictions involving extensive personal corruption) introduced a bill to outlaw all ammunition that could penetrate soft-body armor. This could lead to ban on most rifle ammunition, since most rifle ammo will penetrate soft-body armor. Soft-body armor is designed to stop handgun ammunition, not rifle ammunition.
When this fact was pointed out, the old media and the gun-prohibition lobbies sneered that NRA members wanted to go deer-hunting with cop-killer Teflon bullets.
As the debate continued, the constant repetition of the phrase "cop-killer bullet" helped drive a wedge between the NRA 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 BATF 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.
More generally, the issue placed the NRA on the defensive, and impeded the NRA's goal of pushing FOPA into law. Many of the NRA's friends in Congress and White House quietly insisted that something be done to get rid of the issue.
Handgun Control, Inc., and the rest of the panic-and-prohibition lobbies (on many issues besides guns) are quite right to be worried about Dick Cheney. It's not primarily about Cheney's voting record — which on gun issues in the House of Representatives was very similar to Rep. Al Gore's. It's not even primarily about banning rifle ammunition, although Cheney's election would probably spell the end of that particular issue.
The much greater problem is that Cheney is very smart; he learns the facts; he doesn't fall for the old media's summary of an issue; and (in great contrast to Bob Dole), his idea of a good law is not "anything that makes a sufficient number of lobbying factions happy." Most dangerously of all, from HCI's point of view, Cheney will have the president's respect and his attention.
Now imagine the situation 18 months from now. The prohibition groups have just worked the old media into a tizzy over "laser shotguns" or "handgun-mounted grenade launchers" or "invisible ammunition" or some other nonexistent product causing a nonexistent problem. The president's pollsters explain that 84 percent of the public says "yes" when asked "Do you want the government to do something about laser shotguns and invisible ammunition in the hands of violent criminals, psychopaths, and foreign terrorists?"
If you think this situation is unlikely, just remember the spring of 1989, when so-called "semiautomatic assault weapons" were all the rage. Only cosmetically were "assault weapons" different from other guns. Indeed, the 1994 federal ban focused exclusively on cosmetics (e.g., accessories like bayonet lugs, or a second grip on a rifle that protrudes "conspicuously"). The guns do not fire faster than other guns, and their ammunition power is on the low end for rifles. Police statistics show that the guns are rarely used in crime. But President George Bush III didn't know any better, so he proclaimed that he too was against "automated attack weapons." Dan Quayle didn't know any better either, and even if he had, President Bush wouldn't have paid attention to him.
But in 2001, consider what will happen when Vice President Cheney schedules a meeting with the second President Bush, to explain to the president that there's no such thing as "invisible ammunition" or "laser shotguns" — or "bubblegum-flavored chewing tobacco" or "nicotine beer" or "a nationwide network of hate groups which specialize in lynching transvestites" — or whatever other phony terror some lobbying groups and their media dupes have fabricated.
For the many prohibition groups who can't handle the truth, Dick Cheney could be the worst thing that ever happened to them.