WASHINGTON — The House Tuesday overwhelmingly approved long-stalled legislation outlawing public access to "cop-killer" bullets that can pierce armored vests.
"This is the biggest legislative victory in years for law enforcement," Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), a primary sponsor of the bill, said after the measure passed on a vote of 400 to 21.
Biaggi, who as a New York City police officer was wounded 10 times, said in brief debate that the House had an easy decision to make. "Either you're for cops or crooks," he declared.
But opponents contended that the best way to protect police officers is to require death sentences for their killers. The politically potent National Rifle Assn., which had objected that such a bill would open the door to stronger gun control, had been able to hold up action on the legislation for several years.
The measure was introduced out of concern that armor-piercing bullets, originally designed for police use, are available for sale nationwide to criminals and terrorists who could use them to penetrate protective vests worn by police and high government officials. An estimated 2 million rounds are available over-the-counter.
The legislation would ban the manufacture, importation and sale of armor-piercing bullets except for police and military use, export or government-approved testing. Anyone caught possessing such bullets in the commission of a violent crime would face a mandatory five-year prison term.
The Senate is expected to consider a similar bill soon. But, while the House would bar sales of all existing "super bullets," the Senate legislation would prohibit selling only those bullets manufactured after the bill became law.
The NRA agreed not to oppose the House measure only after a key change was made in the bill, a House aide said. The new provision states that a gun shop owner could lose his license only if he "willfully" sold banned bullets. Critics had complained that, in the original version of the legislation, a seller could be held liable if he simply failed to identify the outlawed ammunition.
Thirteen states, including California, already have banned public sale of armor-piercing bullets. The House legislation defines such bullets as those made from seven hard metals, although it excludes from the ban any bullets "primarily intended to be used for sporting purposes."
In contrast with conventional bullets made of lead, a soft metal, the hard-metal bullets can easily penetrate armored vests.
Police Shun Use
Ironically, the bullets were developed as an aid to police, particularly for use when shooting at moving cars. However, most police agencies have dropped the use of the bullets because of their awesome penetration, the ricochet hazards they pose for bystanders and the fact that police prefer using high-powered rifle ammunition in hostage or barricade situations.
On the other hand, criminals are seeking out the powerful bullets. Although no policeman has ever been killed by such a bullet, congressional committees identified 18 cases over the last 18 years in which a criminal either used or possessed armor-piercing ammunition.
One such case involved James Huberty, the man who shot and killed 21 persons at a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif., in July, 1984. During the siege, Huberty fired 192 armor-piercing bullets made by a Czechoslovakian firm that had exported 30 million rounds to the United States in the 1970s.
A House Judiciary Committee aide said that various manufacturers of the hard-metal bullets had volunteered to halt production.