The ATF, more formally known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has issued two notices on explosives — and has quickly retracted one of them. One notice immediately raised gun owner hackles while the other one is more of a public service announcement.
The controversial announcement was that the ATF — briefly — reclassified wetted nitrocellulose as an explosive. Wetted nitrocellulose is a common component in manufacturing and reloading ammunition. The decision was immediately criticized by the gun community as a way to drive up ammo costs by fiat.
In theory, by classifying wetted nitrocellulose as an explosive, the costs to license, handle, process and insure a basic loading component could have been artificially driven up. This could have raised costs across the board, even for government buyers. Even worse, it could have completely ended the way ammo is made and sold.
“If smokeless powders are now considered high explosives then ammunition can no longer be sold on store shelves. Manufacturers need to completely redesign their operations, rebuilding their facilities and ensuring their personnel meet the stringent requirements,” explained gun law expert Joshua Prince. “Simply put, if [the] ATF intends to enforce this new designation ammunition is going to be almost impossible to acquire.”
While the government makes exemptions for some uses of explosives, including specifically for ammunition manufacturers, this might still have significantly changed the ammo production landscape.
“At the point the nitrocellulose is incorporated into smokeless powder or a complete round of ammunition, it is exempt from the requirements of the record keeping, storage, and other requirements of federal law and regulations,” said Ammoland.
“However, other explosive materials used to manufacture ammunition will not be exempt until incorporated into one of the components of ammunition listed in the regulation, including smokeless powder or a complete round of small arms ammunition. Thus, wetted nitrocellulose containing greater than 12.6 percent nitrogen may be lawfully shipped, transported, or received only by persons holding federal explosives licenses or permits.”
So while the ATF’s decision to reclassify wetted nitrocellulose was definitely not a good thing, it wasn’t as bad as some people expected. Just the same, the ATF has since put the decision on hold, and that is a good thing.
The ATF delayed the decision almost immediately. In a memo titled “Nitrocellulose — Update” (.pdf) the ATF said that “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.
“Accordingly, ATF has and will conduct further industry outreach concerning wetted Nitrocellulose,” added the ATF. “In the interim, previously authorized industry practices concerning wetted citrocellulose will not be affected.”
The decision to withhold reclassification of wetted nitrocellulose could have been due to public outcry, logistics problems or both. It still serves as a reminder of how deeply an industry can be affected by a regulatory agency.
PSA: IEDs Found in Kentucky, Look Out
With the gun community spinning after the back-to-back nitrocellulose announcements one very important ATF release may have gone unnoticed. The ATF discovered nine IEDs — improvised explosive devices — in the Kentucky wilderness.
These IEDs were rigged up to game cameras across Harlan county. Three of the IEDs went off and injured passers-by but there may be more bombs yet to be found.
“Some of the trail cameras were found abandoned on paths in rural areas routinely accessed via the Dave Smith Drainage Area (Woodland Hills Subdivision, Harlan, KY) on the Little Black Mountain Spur in Harlan County,” said the ATF in an official statement. “These IEDs were designed to explode when a person inserted batteries into the trail camera.”
Not all of the bombs were built into trail cams. “Other IEDs were designed to be detonated by a tripwire leading to the trail cameras,” added the ATF. “In some instances, containers such as milk jugs, protein powder containers, or paint cans were placed nearby the explosive device. In addition, there is information that a tree stand had been placed in the woods with an explosive device attached.”
On the surface, it looks like someone was targeting hunters and outdoors enthusiasts, but drugs are commonly made and grown in out-of-the-way places. These could have been booby traps although police did not find any signs of drug production.
The ATF and local officials are cautioning people against handling game cameras they didn’t place themselves. And if anyone finds a suspicious game camera, please contact the ATF or the local police with a location and GPS coordinates if possible.
This announcement is related to the investigation and arrest of Mark Sawaf earlier this summer. Investigators found many explosives and bomb-related materials in Sawaf’s home.
Sawaf was killed in custody after attempting to take an officer’s pistol according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Charges have not been filed against the officer involved.