As the trial of John Hinckley for the attempted assassination of President Reagan proceeds, attention is focused on the vulnerability of public officials and private citizens to handgun attacks.
Bulletproof vests are now worn by many public figures, as well as an increasing number of police and those who work in dangerous areas. But these vests are no protection against armor-piercing bullets, currently the target at state and federal levels of those who worry that the ammunition is being obtained by criminals and terrorists.
Although bullets designed to penetrate bulletproof clothing have been manufactured for years, they are now receiving widespread attention. New York police are concerned that their city is becoming a ''dumping ground for these bullets,'' according to Craig Floyd, an aide to Rep. Mario Biaggi (D) of New York.
Representative Biaggi, along with 70 cosponsors, is backing a bill to ban the import, manufacture, and sale of armor-piercing bullets except for enforcement of public safety and national security. Bills limiting the availability of so-called ''cop killer'' bullets have been introduced in California, Connecticut , New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Minnesota outlawed such ammunition March 22.
Who uses the bullets? Bob Herman, a Los Angeles County Sheriff, says he has ''not found one police department that uses or even authorizes the use'' of metal-piercing bullets.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) reports that almost all states have laws prohibiting hunters from using armor-piercing bullets.
''If hunters and police don't use them, then criminals'' must be the market for the ammunition, Mr. Floyd says.
Armor-piercing bullets for handguns are short, dense, and very hard. While conventional ammunition flattens upon impact, these bullets retain their shape and travel at great speed, so they tend to exit the target and ricochet on a new trajectory. This quality of penetrating a target and unpredictably of hitting elsewhere makes the bullets unappealing to hunters and police since it tends to wound rather than stop the animal or suspect at which they are fired.
The most powerful of six armor-piercing bullets is the KTW, which is coated with Teflon. North American Ordnance of Pontiac, Mich., bought exclusive rights to KTW in 1980 from its three Lorain, Ohio, inventors. In recent tests the apple-green bullet went through 72 layers of Kevlar, the material in most bulletproof vests. The most popular weight in police vests is 18 layers of Kevlar.
Calling KTW ''special ammunition for special applications,'' North American Ordnance president John Klein says he sells the bullets to ''police departments all over the world'' and to ''governments.'' He says the ammunition is necessary because terrorists are wearing bulletproof vests and the average caliber of bullet used in crimes is increasing yearly. Mr. Klein declines to name any of his customers, saying to do so would be irresponsible.
Klein claims there is ''no place'' where KTW bullets are on sale in gun shops or on the street. But Bill Guthrie, an editor of Soldier of Fortune magazine, says he has seen armor-piercing bullets on sale ''at flea markets, swap meets, and gun shows for $1 or $2.''
North American Ordnance used to sell KTW bullets to federal licensees, most of them gun shops. Earlier this year BATF asked the company to voluntarily restrict its sale of armor-piercing bullets to police departments and federal agencies. Klein says his firm complied after he inquired whether other manufacturers of armor-piercing bullets had agreed to the restriction.
But armor-piercing bullets are still available through gun shops and ''the majority of criminals who obtain the ammunition do so through gun dealers,'' according to Mr. Floyd.
Publicity has brought change to the business. Winchester International in late February stopped manufacturing armor-piercing bullets which it had produced since the days of gangland warfare in the 1930s. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., maker of Kevlar and Teflon, no longer supplies Teflon to arms makers. Public affairs manager James Reynolds says Du Pont has not received any complaints, from police or otherwise, about their decision.
In the absence of widespread or celebrated incidents involving armor-piercing ammunition, the pressure for a ban remains. ''It would be good to be preventive for a change,'' says Jerry Herskowitz, president of the Connecticut State Police Union.
The House Judiciary Committee has scheduled further hearings on the bill to restrict the ammunition for May 12.