A Practical Solution to Gun Violence: Regulate Bullets

February 25th, 2013 - by admin

Brooks Mencher / Insight, San Francisco Chronicle – 2013-02-25 00:46:57


Bullets of War Flood US Streets
Brooks Mencher / Insight, San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO (February 24, 2013) — It took 92.5 million pounds of earth last year to cover the graves of America’s shooting victims — 619 tons for Oakland alone and 248 tons for San Francisco. While many of the murder weapons have been counted and traced, we will never know the tonnage of ammunition bought and used, and never know the buyers.

“At this time,” said ATF spokeswoman Ginger Colbrun, “unless there’s an executive order, ammunition is not regulated. There is no tracking system,” as there is for firearms. There is neither a record of purchase nor a background check, as there is for the gun itself (barring sales on Craigslist or at gun shows). There is no tagging system to trace the cartridges’ or slugs’ origins after a shooting, no tooling like a gun’s serial number.

Moreover, the image databank for matching bullets from one crime to another, the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, is sorely in need of expansion and modernization, according to a 5-year-old National Academy of Sciences study on ballistic imaging.

Why? Is there something immoral in a background check for ammunition purchases, something un-American in establishing a system of tracking bullets?

And why do we live in an America with fewer restrictions than the world’s battlefields? Protections negotiated more than a century ago in The Hague to save soldiers of all nations from bullets that produce “enormous ravages to the body” still have no place on American soil. The world’s war zones, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, have more protection than the streets and alleys of San Francisco or the halls of the American Civic Association immigration center in Binghamton, NY, because nations at war adhere to the Hague Declaration.

The historic Hague Peace Conference of July 1899 banned fragmenting and mushrooming bullets from the theater of war — these were dumdum bullets manufactured by the British in Dum Dum, India, with their devastating tips of exposed, expanding lead — but only after committee members overcame the urge to permit the use of such bullets on “savages” whose uprisings threatened the expansion of empire.

In San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee has staked out a small piece of turf that might exist in partial accord with that declaration. But the nation must follow his lead to make an impact.

The full-metal-jacket bullet was a 19th century attempt to avoid “uselessly cruel wounds,” which had become more than civilized man could bear, at least when war was waged upon himself. A century has passed, and dumdum bullets, now called jacketed hollow points, are everywhere but on the official battlefield.

Wherever they’re used, bullets obey the laws of physics just as the rifled barrels that propel them obey the rules of mechanics. We all know the old cliche: Guns don’t kill people…. They don’t, because guns are only half the equation. Bullets kill people, and Isaac Newton’s formula, E = 1/2mv{+2}, makes it possible. Bullets are the shadow half. The slug’s kinetic energy, its stopping power, results from its weight (m) and velocity (v), but that’s only part of what makes it deadly.

Ballistics engineering, not one of man’s gentler arts, adopts the formula and takes into account the law of friction (spawned by Newton’s Third Law of Motion), formulas for drag or resistance and empirical data from testing to make bullets that: explode inside the body; go completely through it (considered a waste of the bullet’s kinetic energy); expand to perhaps twice their diameter shortly after piercing the body; fragment upon entry; vaporize upon entry; or blow a wide crater upon exit or entry or somewhere in between, with or without bullet fragments, with or without detached muscle.

Tissue damage occurs, in ballistic terms, by crushing, laceration, shock waves and cavitation. Temporary cavitation is from tissue-stretching caused by the ultrahigh-velocity entrance of bullet into flesh, like a rock splashing the surface of a pond, and permanent cavitation is caused by bullet expansion, fragmentation and other forces inside the tissue, where the target is further decimated by the bullet’s yaw. This is the tilting or tumbling of the bullet, even to the point of reversing direction once in the body, caused by friction and the weight-forward tendency of a slug in motion. The rifling of a gun barrel makes the bullet spin in an engineered effort to overcome yaw with gyroscopic force until the slug finds its target, at which point yaw gains the upper hand.

This is the nomenclature of bullets. And yet, strangely, the street corners of North Oakland will now and then have their own names posted as well, and with them, often, are hearts and flowers, candles and regrets scribbled in chalk. Sometimes, there are small photos.

Bullets seem so small. A popular slug for the AR-15-class assault rifle weighs only 50 grains — at .114 ounce, about the weight of a copper penny or a hummingbird. Its width is a bit less than that of 1/4-inch-thick pencil, which would be a .25 caliber, measured in hundredths of an inch (a 9mm bullet would be about .35 caliber, or 35 hundredths). The .223-caliber cartridge is made up of a .223 brass case to hold the gunpowder and primer and .224 copper-jacketed bullet (a thousandth of an inch wider to fit snugly against the brass). The naming of the .223 is almost shorthand: .223 refers to the cartridge, to the case, in most cases to the bullet, especially in popular media (even though the bullet is a .224), and even to the rifle itself.

There are more than 40 kinds of commercially available bullets for the AR-15-class assault rifle, and there are at least five different commercial riflings for the barrel, each demanding a specific line of bullets for a specific kind of shooting.

The .223 bullet’s destructive capability, military and civilian, was mapped by the trauma surgeon Martin Fackler during his decade at the Presidio. He developed and used a precise mixture of 10 percent ordnance gelatin (similar to gelatin made from rendered animal tissue) and 90 percent hot water, cooling the mix to 39 degrees, the consistency of human flesh.

Calibrations were made by comparing the impacts in gel and pig tissue, pigs being similar to people in this respect. His gelatin blocks were long enough to capture the bullets’ full path. Because the gel was translucent, the path could be seen, its cavitation and the bullet’s yaw captured, the temporary cavity measurable in surface cracks left after entry.

The penetration depth was mapped at 9 to 13 inches, and the bullets were found to blow a large permanent cavity about 6 inches long, detaching muscle tissue, with a ballooning interior temporary cavity of about 5 inches wide, accompanied by fragmentation of about half the bullet.

“The ordnance engineers didn’t have the foggiest idea it would be a fragmenting bullet,” Fackler said. What they were after, he said, was a lighter bullet traveling at a higher velocity that would allow a soldier to carry more ammunition while reducing the rifle’s recoil, enhancing the shooter’s accuracy. A mass shooter in America requires the same, and he relies on the military origins of the .223 to gain that level of lethality.

The full-metal-jacket .223 doesn’t adhere to the spirit of the Hague rule. Neither do the common commercial hollow points designed for 9mm and .40-caliber semiautomatic handguns, the sidearms of choice in mass shootings and street violence. And they are readily available, free of tracking.

The .223 bullet, like the guns that propel it, has no place in America. The AR-15 class isn’t a hunting rifle, though it’s been adopted by varmint hunters for its efficiency in vaporizing prairie dog towns. These are war weapons in all their many incarnations, yet they remain free of war’s binding conventions like the Hague Declaration. Why is that? Why is there no effort to ban the assault guns by caliber rather than by name? Is the economic impact too great? Would such a ban be too successful?

Brooks Mencher is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer and the Insight page designer.

Gun Limits, or An Armed Citizenry?
Brooks Mencher / San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO (February 22, 2013) — Could a competent, armed population have prevented Newtown? Do well-meaning citizens and retired cops and former soldiers have enough expertise to take the place of the specially trained police units needed for incidents like Columbine? Do they have the power of law behind them? Or would we instead have a hundred George Zimmermans and a hundred Trayvon Martins on our hands? One thing is certain: The supply of guns and bullets assures us there will be another Oakland next year and another Fort Hood — and another and another.

Washington, moved by Newtown and the outcry across the nation, has shifted its bulk a little, has opened an eye and groaned, “Hmm, we can all be safe, and we can all have our guns, too. Don’t worry. We’ll talk. And talk.”

It’s shameful and embarrassing that it took the lives of 20 children to move the government, and it is agonizingly sad.

It’s disillusioning to know that the incessant small headlines about shootings from nearly every city in the nation, year after year, meant nothing in Washington. Oakland, San Francisco, Richmond: Many who have died were barely more than children.

But some legal action to restrict gun access appears inevitable after Newtown. Under consideration by Congress is the reinstatement of a federal assault weapons ban. It was done before — the economy didn’t crumble, shooters didn’t go hungry, the government didn’t descend on a defenseless population and imprison it, children still went to school.

It was allowed to sunset in 2004 by a Congress wishing only to sleep.

Other significant measures bound for eventual approval include expanded background checks on gun buyers. It may not do much, but anything would help.

These are not bold moves. As hard-fought as they will be, they are political solutions slogging their way through a sludge of compromise, distracting us from the number of wounded and dead, from the names.

With the volume of available guns and the unrestricted access to bullets, how on Earth could the current American death toll, whether urban or suburban, not happen? Yet there are other measures that might be taken. Are they too severe? They are hardly as final as death.

Gun Measures
• Cap firearm production.

• Ban the manufacture and importation of assault rifles not by name or description, but by caliber. Start with the .223, a military rifle (even as such, it violates the Hague Declaration), and continue from there.

• Proactively ban the manufacture and importation of replacement calibers as gunmakers retool to reclaim the .223 market as well as the market shares of other banned calibers.

• Ban not just the sale and importation of expanded magazines, as suggested by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, but also their manufacture.

• Restrict firearm importation; include any imports in the manufacturing cap.

Bullet Tracking
• Cap the production of ammunition.

• Pass legislation adopting the Hague Declaration domestically, updating it to include all fragmenting bullets; consider allowing the use of hollow points by police agencies only, based on safety factors.

• Establish mandatory background checks and purchase tracking for bullets.

• Expand the crime-bullet imaging program as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences in the 2008 study “Ballistic Imaging.”

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