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COLUMN ONE : Taking Aim at Exotic Bullets : Lawmakers move to regulate the ammunition industry, as the market grows for vicious rounds like Blammo Ammo. But some gun experts and police say such controls could be duds.

January 11, 1994|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EAST ALTON, Ill. — In the low green hills that flank Wood River Creek, the largest U.S. manufacturer of shells and cartridges maintains a proud, 1,700-acre complex.

Among the buildings, corrugated metal interspersed with 1890s brick, are a company brass mill--the source for all the nation's coins as well as for shell casings--a company fire station, a company target range. Down Powder Mill Road, instructors at the company gun club teach employees and their children how to aim and shoot.

The overall effect is one of grand American tradition. After all, the Olin Corp.'s Winchester Ammunition plant has churned out multiple millions of rounds a year, unquestioned, for a century. Its lineage dates back to 1892 when Franklin Olin moved here from New Jersey.

Now, one of the company's products is making history of a very different sort. Winchester's Black Talon is an early, highly visible casualty of a growing sentiment to regulate ammunition in America.

The Talon, which forms razor-sharp barbs upon impact, is described in a gun magazine review as a shell that "penetrates soft tissue like a throwing star--very nasty." Late in November, under heavy political pressure, Winchester announced that the Talon would no longer be available to the public and would be sold only to law enforcement agencies.

Suddenly, Washington has ammo as well as weapons in its cross-hairs. The images evoked are not of the pioneers, but of Colin Ferguson, who last month allegedly used Black Talons and a 9-millimeter handgun to shoot 23 commuters, killing six, on the Long Island Rail Road. "Guns don't kill people," Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) has grown fond of repeating. "Bullets do."

Congress will entertain measures this year from Moynihan and Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to effectively ban several vicious types of rounds. Already, deep in the details of last year's federal crime bill, a Swedish bullet that penetrates protective police vests was outlawed. The bullet slipped through a loophole in a 1986 law that banned the manufacture and importing of armor-piercing ammunition.

Groups of physicians have begun writing their congressmen urging creation of a federal commission to regulate which shells can be sold. Going even further, Democratic Sens. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Patty Murray of Washington and Moynihan have each introduced bills to raise taxes significantly from the current 11% up to anywhere from 25% to 50%, on most rounds, with revenue earmarked for emergency treatment and construction of trauma centers. Rep. Mel Reynolds (D-Ill.) is pondering similar legislation.

In a country where, by and large, it takes only a driver's license to buy the means to load a gun, "it is time we began a responsible mode of licensing and reporting" ammunition sales, Moynihan said recently on the Senate floor. The current crop of bills, he said, "is a beginning."

This is the first time there has been such widespread talk of restricting ammunition during the debate over gun control that has waxed and waned for years. The industry has kept a low profile, aided by its makeup of many small companies, with the biggest players mere divisions of huge conglomerates, such as Olin or Du Pont.

The long, close look now is the result of a growing market in exotic cartridges with names like Dragon's Breath and Blammo Ammo, combined with a new upsurge in fear of violent crime and the need to finance health care reform.

The rationale is that even if gun control were to take effect tomorrow, 200 million weapons are already in private hands and would remain so, effective for many decades more. By contrast, federal officials estimate that there is only a three- to five-year supply of ammunition in circulation.

It's a rationale that is "patently ridiculous," said Kevin Steele, editor of Guns & Ammo magazine. "For the politicians, it's an easy way out. They're looking at symptoms rather than causes."

"We all share the concern about crime," said Robert Delfay, executive director of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute, a consortium formed by 15 ammo companies. "We understand what may have been the inspiration for all this and we sympathize, but it doesn't seem very well thought out."

Even some of the law enforcement figures who have led the charge have their doubts about how effective the new proposals would be. The bills take half-steps, they say, which try to mollify the substantial numbers of hunters and believers in armed self-defense. The compromises that may be necessary to win passage, they say, will not stop criminals from using loaded pistols to threaten, maim and kill.

Most of the bills would exempt .22-caliber ammo, the "plinking" shot meant for toppling tin cans, from tax increases. In deference to hunters, rifle ammo also would be left alone.

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