An Explosive Proposition

By David Codrea

“ATF was recently asked about the status of nitrocellulose under the Federal explosives laws and regulations,” the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives noted in its… industry newsletter. “‘Nitrocellulose explosive’ is on ATF’s List of Explosive Materials.”

Who did the asking—and what their motives were—was left unsaid.

“ATF has determined that nitrocellulose containing greater than 12.6 percent nitrogen is a high explosive under 27 CFR, Part 555 (nitrocellulose containing 12.6 percent or less nitrogen is generally not an explosive material under Part 555),” the release explained. “Therefore, it must be stored in a type 1 or type 2 magazine.

“We are aware that the US Department of Transportation may assign a nonexplosive classification to nitrocellulose when it has been wetted with water or alcohol,” the advisory acknowledged. “This is based, in part, on the diminished likelihood of explosion in a transportation accident.

“Because the nitrocellulose retains its explosive characteristics when the water or alcohol is removed, the wetted nitrocellulose remains a nitrocellulose explosive, subject to the licensing, safety and security requirements of the Federal explosives regulations,” the post concluded. “However, based upon the diminished likelihood of wetted nitrocellulose exploding, ATF will consider variance requests to store the wetted material under an alternative arrangement.”

Sounds like a bunch of technical and regulatory stuff. What did they just say, and how would that affect us regular gun owners?

We get our ammunition from manufacturers who live and die on regulatory and technical stuff. Forget major violations, just failing to dot an “i” or cross a “t” can result in a world of hurt. Plus, we consumers ultimately pay for the cost of compliance with every round, and that includes when new rules impact supply availability in a demanding market.

“[T]his is a dramatic and sudden change in agency policy with a significant impact on the ammunition industry,” a response published on AmmoLand.com from the law firm of Reeves & Dola, LLC maintained. “The new policy was announced in a newsletter without any opportunity for industry input.”

That certainly sounds like the ATF we’ve all come to know and love.

To make its case, the law firm cited the exemptions “for small arms and ammunition and components thereof” as codified by federal regulations that have been part of standard industry practice. It noted that it has been ATF’s “longstanding position” to recognize such exemptions, and even cited an Explosive Industry Newsletter from a few years prior as documentation of the Bureau’s expectations and position.

So what’s the impact of ATF coming up with new rules for wetted nitrocellulose?

“Manufacturers and importers of smokeless propellant have relied on ATF private letter rulings issued prior to 2016 stating that nitrocellulose wetted with water not less than 25 percent by mass is not subject to regulation under the federal explosives laws,” the response explained. Their entire operations have been set up “consistent with nitrocellulose not being regulated as an explosive.”

Everything from storage to record-keeping and more would be thrown for a loop. Also impacted would be “contracts to supply smokeless propellant and finished rounds of ammunition to the Department of Defense.”

Dropping such a change on the industry by surprise “left manufacturers scrambling” to figure out how they could comply with new requirements, the response elaborated. And with no grace period, again something ATF has traditionally allowed, manufacturers and importers would find themselves in violation of federal law—and all that implies in terms of business and life-destroying consequences.

“ATF’s sudden and unexpected change in policy… will likely have a significant impact on industry’s ability to deliver products to the military and commercial markets,” the response concluded. “[I]t is unclear why ATF believed it necessary to change its policy and, more importantly, why ATF announced the change in a newsletter article with no advance notice to industry.”

Good points. They really ought to get people asking whose idea this was, first to impose it, and second, to lay it on everyone this way.

As you can imagine, the internet exploded, with angry gun owners and rights advocates (not unjustifiably) smelling (another) plot by the Obama administration to limit the supply of commercial ammo. Fresh on their minds was an earlier attempt to restrict supplies by reclassifying popular rifle ammunition as “armor piercing.” My first reaction was to contact my Congressman (“A”-rated by NRA and “B”-rated by GOA, so not a waste of time), send him the link to the law firm’s analysis and ask “What will you do about this?”

Immediate anger and mistrust were understandable and natural reactions. It’s not like there’s a lot of love lost for an administration that’s made no secret of its hostility to “shall not be infringed.” And nothing quite says complete loss of trust like arranging for guns to “walk” to Mexico so they could be recovered at deadly crime scenes—and then used to point fingers at US gun shops in a bid to impose new restrictions. When dealing with known gun-grabbers, the prudent default position is to assume they’re trying to hose you.

For its part, ATF acted like the furious backlash caught it by surprise. Perhaps it did, as their decision-makers have no real proprietary interest in the impacts of their diktats. Whether they’re writing up violations, revoking licenses or whatever, their guys eat. It won’t be their lives and livelihoods that get destroyed.

That’s why the “clarification” they issued within days of being exposed came across like nothing so much as the late Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella character on the original Saturday Night Live show. Remember how she’d go on a rant about a subject she misheard? Then when advised she had everything wrong, look right at the camera, smile and say “Never mind”?

That’s pretty much what ATF did in a newsletter addendum titled “Nitrocellulose Update.”

“As with all explosives, ATF’s focus is on the potential public safety risks associated with materials that can be misused or diverted to unlawful purposes,” they explained. “Subsequent contact from industry members who import, transport, store or employ wetted Nitrocellulose in the production of ammunition, however, has brought to our attention issues that were not fully addressed in the Newsletter and require further consultation and consideration with the industry.”

See, it’s not like they know anyone in the industry they could have consulted with prior to poking the hornets’ nest. It’s not like they’d have any way of knowing that such a surprise edict would alarm those they hold power over. Right?

“Accordingly, ATF has and will conduct further industry outreach concerning wetted Nitrocellulose,” they promised, just like nothing had happened. “In the interim, previously authorized industry practices concerning wetted Nitrocellulose will not be affected.”

That leaves open the door to future impositions, a point not lost on NRA.

“While the addendum doesn’t indicate that ATF has permanently abandoned this change to nitrocellulose regulation, smokeless powder manufacturers will be permitted to continue normal operation, at least for the time being,” they advised in a media statement. “NRA will continue to work to ensure that any future change to nitrocellulose regulation will not affect ammunition supply.”

That assumes a workable political climate, does it not? And that ultimately falls not on the industry or on lobbying groups, but on you and me, and our individual levels of commitment and involvement.

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One thought on “An Explosive Proposition

  1. Trisha

    “Buy all the guns you want. We can cripple the supply of ammunition at will.” That’s the implication I take from ATF’s behavior.
    Eternal vigilance.

    Reply

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