Before we dig into one of the most troubling consequences of the ATF’s proposed ban on M855 ammunition, it is important to establish one thing: universal background checks are equivalent to registration. No matter how decentralized the implementation, the existence of a paper trail from a firearm’s manufacturer to its current owner is a form of registration. While many (even some gun owners) will argue that law-abiding gun enthusiasts have no reason to fear background check schemes, the ATF’s recent proposal may undermine these assertions.
As a refresher, last week the ATF released a new framework proposal that could change the way the agency assesses armor piercing ammunition. One identified effect of this change would be the reclassification of popular M855 5.56mm ammunition from “exempted” to “armor piercing”. In defense of their planned changes, the ATF has attempted to reassure gun owners by claiming that possession of armor piercing ammunition does not violate federal law. However, the agency has yet to address the potential state-level implications of their reclassification efforts.
Possession of armor piercing ammunition is explicitly banned in twelve US states (Alabama, California, Connecticut, Indiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas). In most of these states, mere possession of a single armor piercing round constitutes a felony punishable by as many as ten years in prison. In essence, the ATF’s ruling is set to make felons of thousands of otherwise legal gun owners and while some of the listed states might ignore violations for possession of M855, there are a few that almost assuredly will prosecute unknowing possessors of the ammunition.
So how does this proposal relate to background checks or registration? The connection is actually quite simple. If the government knows who possesses a particular firearm or ammunition, it also knows where to find that article should it suddenly be deemed contraband. This is why many gun owners feel that “it isn’t what we own today that worries us, but what might be illegal tomorrow. “ Peaceable firearms enthusiasts simply should not have to worry that firearms or ammunition that they possess legally today might be outright banned in the future. The ATF has made it abundantly clear that it has no qualms in making criminals of thousands of gun owners simply by reclassifying a popular type of ammunition. We should not think it unreasonable that they could try more of the same in the future.