Hollow-point bullets have a pit at the tip, which makes them look a bit like tiny steel smokestacks. When the bullet hits a target, pressure builds within the pit and pushes outward against lead walls, causing the bullet's surface area to expand and leave a greater trail of damage within the target. The bullet ends up looking like a mushroom.
They are far more deadly than normal bullets. And, by this time next month, they may be banned in San Francisco. Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr announced the proposal yesterday. Supervisor Malia Cohen intends to introduce the bill when the Board convenes on Jan. 15.
The policy's passage would mark a turning point in America's conflicted relationship with hollow-point bullets.
Hollow-points, and previous iterations of expanding bullets, have drawn special attention since as far back as the St. Petersburg Declaration of 1886, which outlawed exploding projectiles in international warfare. In 1899, the Hague Convention specifically banned the use of bullets that expand or flatten in the body.
In the years since, hollow-point bullets have found a domestic role in the guns of both the good guys and the bad guys.
Most big city police departments began using hollow-points in the 1970s and '80s. They are more accurate to shoot. Fewer shots are needed to take down a target. They are less prone to ricochet. And they tend to stay inside the body of a target rather than pass through, which is important if the officer is in a shootout in a public setting.
Hollow-points are particularly useful for hunting. They kill animals faster and more humanely. In fact, in England, where it is illegal to buy or sell hollow-points without government permission, hunters are required to use hollow-point bullets when killing certain game, including deer.
The bullets are easily available, though more expensive than regular ones. You can buy them at certain Walmarts.
Yet despite the ammo's pervasiveness, there does remains a stigma attached to hollow-points, a connotation of extreme force. People sometimes refer to them as "cop-killer" bullets.
The bullets are often linked to high-profile rampages, where shooters are seeking to inflict maximum damage: the 1993 Long Island Rail Road shooting that killed six and wounded 19 more; the 101 California Street high-rise shooting that killed eight in 1993 -- the worst mass shooting in San Francisco history; the Dunblane Primary School massacre in 1996, in which 16 students and one teacher were killed -- the worst school shooting in United Kingdom history; the Xerox office building shooting in Hawaii that killed seven people in 1999; the 2007 mass-shooting at Virginia Tech.
"When they strike a victim, it's like a bomb going off," Dr. Andre Campbell, a trauma surgeon at San Francisco General Hospital, told the Chronicle.
As recently as 1997, New York City was debating whether its police force should be allowed to use them.
A New York Times editorial on the subject said:
Former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, cautioning in 1994 against the use of hollow-points, noted that one out of five officers shot were wounded with their own guns. Had those guns used hollow-points, the injuries would have been worse. Bystanders, though less likely to be wounded by shots passing through other people, may be more likely to die if shot directly with a poorly aimed hollow-point bullet.
In August, after the Social Security Administration bought loads of hollow-point bullets for special agent training, conservative outlets cried out.
"Obscure federal agencies triggered a firestorm of conspiracy theories this week after they put out orders for thousands of rounds of deadly hollow-point bullets," read a Fox News story, which noted that one website "speculated that the purchases were being made in preparation for 'civil unrest,' imagining a scenario of economic collapse where seniors could cause 'disorder' if denied their Social Security benefits."
San Francisco's present push toward stricter gun control laws was, of course, spurred by the recent shooting in Newtown, Conn., in which Adam Lanza entered an elementary school and killed 20 children and six adults. Some news outlets have speculated that Lanza used hollow-point bullets. Either way, the tragedy has sparked political will across the country. Wisconsin state legislators are considering a bill banning hollow-points, too.
San Francisco's legislation would also require ammunition sellers to notify police when somebody in the city buys 500 or more bullets in a single purchase.