Understanding ATF’s ban on M855 ammo

Federal regulators proposed changing the way they exempt restricted ammunition for sporting purposes, a move that’s stirred confusion, conjecture and speculation among gun rights advocates.

In the 17-page proposal, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives details how it wants to restructure the framework for which it classifies armor piercing ammunition, giving itself more flexibility to give certain ammo types a pass based on intended use.

“The proposed framework would expand the ammunition available to sportsmen by allowing some projectiles that are currently prohibited by law to be exempt from the statutorily-imposed restrictions that make those projectiles currently unavailable,” said ATF’s public affairs chief, Ginger Colbrun, to Guns.com in an email.

Changes would include allowing the ATF to presume armor piercing ammunition is “primarily intended to be used for sporting purposes” unless there’s substantial evidence that proves otherwise.

Criteria to classify armor piercing ammunition is very specific. Under federal law, armor piercing ammunition contains a projectile or projectile core that can be used in a handgun, the projectile is also constructed from one or a combination of tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper or depleted uranium, and has a caliber larger than .22.

ATF’s proposal puts military grade 5.56 rounds into focus because while it fits the definition of armor piercing ammunition under the Law Enforcement Officer Protection Act of 1986, it has time and popularity on its side.

Green tip ammo, comprised of M855 cartridges and SS109 bullets, is standard military ammo for use with the M16 rifle and its civilian equivalent, the AR-15. However, since Congress wrote the law 29 years ago, AR-type rifles chambered in 5.56mm have gained tremendous popularity among sport shooters and gun makers began producing AR pistols for consumer consumption, which by default alters the legal classification of green tip ammo to armor piercing status.

Other 5.56mm (or .223 caliber) ammunition fail to meet armor piercing status, but green tip ammo does, which the ATF acknowledges doesn’t make much sense. Legally it is armor piercing ammunition, but its primary use by civilian consumers is for recreational shooting, so regulators should be able to classify accordingly.

Gun rights advocates approach news from the ATF with a grain of salt. While some speculate the proposal is part of a larger conspiracy or conceals malicious intent, Colbrun explains it has more to do with managing ATF’s workload and adhere to manufacturers’ requests.

“The timing is such that ATF continues to receive numerous requests for exemptions,” she said, adding between 1986 and 2011 the ATF received only a few requests to exempt armor piercing ammo for sporting purposes, but in the years after the number of requests jumped. “Since 2011, ATF has received approximately 30 such exemption requests,” she said.

While the ATF aims to streamline the process of exempting armor piercing ammunition for sporting purposes, the proposed framework will not change the status of non-armor piercing ammunition and armor piercing ammunition exempted for sporting purposes, Colbrun said.

However, something like the recently banned Russian surplus 7N6 ammunition would still be prohibited if the framework moves forward, she added.

The proposed framework is not set in stone and it may not even pass. The ATF opened a 30-day window for the public to comment on the proposal, and those who want to participate can send written comments to the agency electronically, by fax or mail.