WASHINGTON — Hours before D.C. shut down for the President's Day long weekend last month, the Obama administration quietly set out to ban a form of armor-piercing ammunition commonly used in the popular, semi-automatic AR-15. Using rule-making power it's had since Congress banned armor-piercing rounds in the 1980s, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) announced the proposal late on a Friday.
On Tuesday, while D.C. was distracted in the run-up to Hillary Clinton's first public comments on the brewing email scandal, the administration quietly pulled the plan after after the National Rifle Association, gun manufacturers, and their supporters rallied to stop the effort.
All sides of the still-roiling gun debate are confused about what exactly happened and what it means for the gun policy debate in the remaining years of President Obama's term in office.
In the month between the initial ATF proposal on Feb. 13 and the effective withdrawal of it March 10, gun rights groups and administration opponents flooded the ATF with more than 80,000 public comments about the proposed ban (an ATF official said the "vast majority" were negative) and lined up congressional opposition. There was basically no one to oppose them. The White House didn't talk much about the ATF proposal publicly, and gun control groups said they found out about the plan too late to effectively muster a response to the NRA lobbying effort.
"There was limited communication from ATF to gun violence prevention groups," said a top official at a prominent gun safety group in Washington. "This is something we haven't been focused on. This is something we saw on a Friday afternoon."
Meanwhile, gun rights supporters expected more political savvy from an administration they've tangled with for years and have a begrudging respect for — at least when discussing the issue privately.
The groups were "perplexed" by the ATF proposal, which used power given to the agency in 1986 to regulate armor-piercing bullets to ban so-called "M885 green tip" rounds; the rounds were exempted from an existing federal ban on armor-piercing rounds because they were not used in handguns. Federal law allows some types armor-piercing rounds as long as they are only used in long guns. Recently, a few gun manufacturers have begun marketing so-called AR-15 "pistols" — versions of the popular firearm with no stock or a collapsible stock — that the ATF cited as evidence that green-tip bullets had jumped from rifle-only to handgun-capable.
Supporters of the firearms industry reject this read on the situation, saying the AR-15 pistols are at the fringe of the market. The ammo is some of the most popular sold for the AR-15, supporters say. In an predictable pattern, sales skyrocketed over the past few weeks as gun rights supporters sounded the alarm about the looming ban and organized campaigns to push back on it.
A top-level consultant to the industry said the Obama administration got the politics wrong with the Friday news dump announcing the ban. Gun industry supporters, always wary of the administration, say they slapped down an intentional administration effort to slip the new regulations through without anyone paying attention.
"In short, they tried to get too cute with it. They were trying to see what they could get away with in the rule-making process without congressional approval and they got their hands slapped HARD," the consultant wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. "No doubt if they had gotten away with this, it would have started a slippery slope of other rules."
NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre echoed the ominous take on the total defeat of the ATF.
"They've gone away for now," he said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "We know they're coming back and we will be ready."
The gun rights community is relishing its victory, but also scratching its head over what one top gun rights advocate said was a rare "fumble" for an administration that has has been a force to be reckoned with on gun control issues if ultimately unable to break the gun rights advocates' grip on the debate.
Gun rights advocates see the administration trying to sneak a new gun control measure past a Republican-controlled Congress unlikely to support it. Gun rights allies have been pressuring ATF to rule on other proposed exemptions to the existing armor-piercing rounds for years, and they said the February proposal was billed as the first step toward making that happen.
"They finally got the rule out on a Friday of a three-day weekend … why else would you do that unless you're trying to bury something?" said Larry Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms manufacturer trade group. "This administration has perfected the art of how to bury the lede, how to bury the story. They know they can't prevail on this issue in Congress, and I think they were shocked by the reaction. They know gun control is not popular. They've been defeated on this issue."
Gun control groups, meanwhile, are generally closely allied with the administration and are used to operating in coordination with it ahead of a fight with the NRA. The groups worked closely with the administration during the 2012 failed White House push for new gun laws and the successful lobbying effort ahead of Senate confirmation of the president's surgeon general nominee, who was put in place over the organized objections of the NRA. But they were blind-sided by the ATF proposal.
"To be honest, the other side out-worked us," said Ladd Everitt, spokesperson for the Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. "The guys who were worried about losing these [bullets] worked harder than those who don't see these things regularly in their normal life."
The focus on banning specific bullets also split the gun control coalition. Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun safety group launched by former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, focuses on background checks and not banning specific types of weapons or ammunition. The group has been successful in building a bipartisan background checks network and steers clear of more divisive fights like the one over the AR-15 rounds.
A top official at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the biggest names in gun control, defended the ATF and the timing of the proposal.
"It was a standard procedure for reviewing and revising the rules, which the ATF has carefully exercised over the years under a law signed 30 years ago by President Ronald Reagan," Jonathan Hutson, Brady communications director, wrote in an email. "What happened? The NRA and the corporate gun lobby gathered their blogger pals around the electronic campfire to tell eerie ghost stories about potential gun bans, even though the ATF's proposal was simply for a rule change to protect the lives and safety of law enforcement officers."
The White House declined to comment on the ATF proposal fight Tuesday. In one of the few public statements about it, during the March 2 daily press briefing, White House press secretary Josh Earnest deferred questions about the proposal to the ATF, but defended the ammo ban as "in the category of common-sense steps that the government can take to protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans while also making sure that our law enforcement officers who are walking the beat every day can do their jobs just a little bit more safely."
Corey Ray, deputy chief of public affairs at the ATF, dismissed the gun rights side's suggestion that the proposal — and the withdrawal of it — were purposefully buried under a holiday weekend and email scandal.
"We made the announcement when we felt we had the information on hand," he said in an interview. "We reached the 80,000-plus mark [in public comments] and with the input from the Hill we felt it was time to take action."
The tenacity of the NRA and NSSF-led campaign against the regulation was felt in the ATF. Keane, the top NSSF official, said his group hasn't turned in the thousands of public comments it collected on the ATF proposal. When they're turned in, they'll raise the total number of negative comments by a large number, Keane said. (The public comment period on the ATF proposal officially ends March 16, though Tuesday's announcement effectively made that date irrelevant.)
"We get emails, faxes, and letters," Ray said. "It's all coming in. We're still taking calls, everything."
The sheer volume of negative comments led officials to effectively scrap the proposal, Ray said.
"I think for any public comment process, that would be considered a significant number," he said.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation is the name the firearms manufacturer trade group. A previous version of this story misstated its name.