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Leading The Fight To Reduce Regulations
On Amateur Rocketry In The United States

Amateur Rocketry Society Of America



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May 23, 2009

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"They that can give up essential liberty
to obtain a little temporary safety
deserve neither liberty nor safety" -
Ben Franklin

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"Americans Flying Rockets
Are Not Terrorists!"

Copyright © 2003 Amateur Rocketry Society of America

US Federal Court Rules AP Propellant Not An Explosive

updated.gif - 0.2 KMay 23, 2009 - The High Power and Amateur Rocketry world finally received some good news and relief from Federal regulations. The court case brought by the National Association of Rocketry (NAR) and Tripoli Rocketry Association (TRA) against the ATFE for putting ammonium perchlorate composite propellant (APCP) on the ATFE Explosives List was won by NAR and TRA. The AFTE decided not to appeal the court ruling. This means amateurs can make, transport and use APCP without any ATFE explosive permits. It also has the effect of cancelling out the major negative effect that the passage of the Homeland Security Act had on the hobby. While black powder is still regulated, many hobbyists have switched to Pyrodex "P" for parachute ejection charges as an effective substitute for black powder. Purchase of Pyrodex does not require an ATFE permit and can be bought in many sporting goods stores. With the court case won and APCP off the ATFE Explosives List, ARSA sees no need to pursue federal legislation in this area of the hobby.

The History of S724
An Attempt At Regulatory Relief From The Homeland Security Act

With the adjournment of the 108th Congress in 2004, S724 was officially dead. Introduced in 2003, the original bill developed by ARSA and Senator Enzi would have provided true legislative relief for hobby rocketry. Unfortunately, it ran into a fire storm of criticism from the Bush Administration plus conservative and liberal Senators. The National Association of Rocketry (NAR) and Tripoli Rocketry Association (TRA) hired a lobbyist, John Kyte, to negotiate a deal with Senator Hatch, despite the opposition to such negotiations by ARSA. The result was that Senators Hatch and Kohl struck out the original S724 bill while it was in the Judiciary Committee and wrote a new one. The Hatch-Kohl S724 or H-K S724 was filled with loopholes for the ATFE to exploit and introduces the concept of exemptions from the Homeland Security Act based on APCP propellant weight. The H-K S724 did little for hobby, amateur or educational rocketry since the weight limit was so low. More importantly, individuals engaged in these activities would still have to meet the associated storage requirements, which most people cannot do. A detailed discussion on the irrelevance of the H-K S724 bill to American rocketry can by found by clicking here. ARSA not only did not support the revised bill, but was in opposition to it. However, NAR and TRA began their own letter writing campaign and lobbying effort to get the H-K S724 bill passed by the Senate. Their attempt failed and the bill did not come up for a vote.

The opposition from the White House to S724 resulted in the ATFE conducting an elaborate and expensive series of "staged" tests to show that hobby rockets can be used to shoot down airliners and thus need to be regulated. It should be pointed out that hobby rockets are useless for shooting down airliners. (ARSA report on hobby rockets as anti-aircraft weapons.) The ATFE also conducted "staged" tests against ground targets. Hobby rockets are also useless against ground targets.(ARSA report on hobby rockets against ground targets.) The resulting video was classified by the ATFE so that the general public cannot view it. However, Senator Enzi was allowed to view the video. While he could not disclose the contents of the video, he did say it did not change his views on the need to deregulate hobby rocketry.

A letter from ARSA member John Wickman was sent to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney outlining an alternative approach (Click here to see a copy of the letter.). It offered a simple solution to the current problem created by the Homeland Security Act. The ATF Explosives List would be amended so that instead of listing "ammonium perchlorate composite propellant", it would list "Class 1.1 ammonium perchlorate composite propellant". The ammonium perchlorate composite propellants used by the hobby would then be exempt from ATFE permit requirements. A letter from President Bush's staff simply brushed the idea aside followed by a list of reasons why President Bush should be reelected in 2004.

This legislative effort has been discontinued with the win by NAR and TRA against the AFTE in their lawsuit and removal of ammonium perchlorate composite propellant from the ATFE Explosives List, ARSA.

ARSA Debunks Department Of Justice Statements On American Rocketry

August 24, 2003 - The Amateur Rocketry Society of America conducted research to show the truth about the false claims made by the Department of Justice and ATFE in their letter to Senator Orrin Hatch, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (Click here to read the Department of Justice Letter to Senator Hatch). Every claim made in their letter on the dangers of rocketry in America is absolutely false. John Wickman from ARSA immediately replied to their letter (Click here to read the reply to Department of Justice Letter).

However, it was clear that many Senators, Representatives and the media simply accepted the Department of Justice & ATFE claims at face value. This "blind" acceptance was dramatically illustrated by the Senator Schumer and Lautenberg press conference on July 29. During the press conference, they repeated the false claims, which were then repeated in the New York Times and various wire stories. ARSA has replied to the charges made by Senators Schumer and Lautenberg (Click here to read the ARSA response to the press conference).

While it may seem incredulous that the Department of Justice and ATFE would simply fabricate false information, that is apparently what they did. The most revealing fact that shows this is their claim that a terrorist can "tinker" together an anti-tank weapon with a 5 mile range using amateur and high power rocketry components. The best the United States military can do is only 3.1 miles with the LOSAT anti-tank missile. How ridiculous can it be to claim that a terrorist can make anti-tank weapons superior to what is produced by Lockheed-Martin for the US Army? This wild and absurd claim strongly suggests that Department of Justice and ATFE simply fabricated claims without any research or supporting analysis.

ARSA started conducting research of its own into these claims so that Senators, Representatives and the media would learn the truth. Rocketry in America is not a threat to America's security. Providing legislative relief in the Homeland Security Act for rocketry is not going result in terrorist incidents in the United States. The analysis and information gathered is currently being assembled into reports. Links to these reports will be posted on this page as the reports are finished.

Background Information On
What Has Happened To
Rocketry In America

updated.gif - 0.2 KMay 23, 2009 - In 1970, the Organized Crime Act created for the first time an "Explosives List". Items on the list were to be regulated by the ATFE. When the list was first created in 1971, ammonium perchlorate composite propellant (APCP) was placed on the Explosives List. From the creation of the law up to the mid 1990's, APCP rocket motors were sold and transported within the United States without the need for ATFE permits. The ATFE's position was that APCP rocket motors were propellant actuated devices and exempt from any ATFE requirements for permits or licenses. The ATF's definition of a propellant actuated device from 27 CFR Sec. 55.11 is:

Propellant Actuated Device:
Any tool or special mechanized device or gas generator
system which is actuated by a propellant or which releases 
and directs work through a propellant charge.

In the mid 1990's, the ATFE decided that APCP rocket motors with propellant weights over 62.5 grams were no longer propellant actuated devices and were explosives. Even though the 62.5 gram restriction was never put into the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), the ATFE threatened to arrest and prosecute anyone with a APCP rocket motor over 62.5 grams if they did not have an ATFE permit

In August 2002, the ATFE published in their monthly newsletter that they were going to determine whether they would continue with the 62.5 gram exemption. Quoting the ATF newsletter, "In the near future, ATF will engage in rule making to solicit comments on the continuing use of the 62.5-gram exemption threshold'. The implied threat was that the exempt weight limit was going to be reduced to values unknown. Click here for August 2002 ATF Newsletter Article

In late November 2002, President Bush signed into law the Homeland Security Act. Embedded inside the law was the Safe Explosives Act, which imposed new restrictions on American rocketry. The new restrictions were that individuals, private colleges and businesses needed an ATF permit to purchase rocket motors using APCP from instate sources. Individuals and private organizations who made their own APCP also needed an ATFE permit to move APCP within the state it was made. Prior to this, a permit was only required when APCP was transported out of the state it was made in. Also, black powder commonly used in ejection charges for deploying parachutes could not be purchased for this purpose without an ATFE permit.

In January 2003, the ATF for the first time proposed a formal 62.5 gram exemption regulation as follows: "Model rocket motors consisting of ammonium perchlorate composite propellant, black powder, or other similar low explosives; containing no more than 62.5 grams of total propellant weight and designed as single use motors or as reload kits capable of reloading no more than 62.5 grams of propellant into a reusable motor casing."

Much of the regulatory problem for rocketry stems from the ATFE putting APCP on the ATFE Explosives List. It does not fit the definition of an explosive in Section 841 of title 18, United States Code as explicitly stated by Congress. The definition for an explosive is a chemical compound or device that has a primary or common purpose to function by explosion. If APCP has a primary or common purpose of functioning by explosion, then every rocket should explode on the pad when the propellant is ignited. Clearly, this is not the purpose of APCP or any other rocket propellant. Therefore, APCP cannot be legally classified as an explosive under the Safe Explosives Act.

A letter was sent to the Director of the ATFE, Mr. Bradley Buckles, by Senator Mike Enzi. The letter states that the ATFE has misclassified APCP as an explosive. Quoting from the Senator's letter to Mr. Buckles, "Congress defined an explosive as any chemical mixture or device whose primary or common purpose is to function by explosion. I am told that the ATF claims that the primary or common purpose of a rocket propellant (i.e., ammonium perchlorate composite propellant) is to explode. A rocket propellant is not designed or intended to explode.".

ARSA began working with Senator Enzi and his staff to get regulatory relief for rocketry from the Safe Explosives Act shortly after it became law. In late December 2003, it was learned that a "technical corrections" bill was going to be passed by the Congress in 2003 to fix problems created by the Homeland Security Act. It was decided that this would be a good bill to place a rocketry exemption from the Safe Explosives Act. However, there was a change in the Senate leadership and they did not see the importance of a "technical corrections" bill. At the point, the only option was to introduce a stand alone bill to exempt rocketry from the Homeland Security Act. This bill, written by ARSA and Senator Enzi, became Senate bill S724.

Click here for the text of Senator Enzi's speech

Click here learn more about the Rocketry Exemption bill.

S724 would work the same way as the current exemption for black powder, fuses and other items used in antique firearms and devices. The rocketry exemption will only apply when the following materials are used in rockets which are neither designed nor redesigned for use as a weapon. The exemption would be added to Section 845 of the Safe Explosives Act. A definition for rocket propellant would be added to Section 841. Senator Hatch and Kohl working in conjunction with the ATFE gutted S724 and wrote a bill so full of loop holes for the ATFE that even if it had passed, the bill would have been worthless to hobbyists. The Hatch-Kohl S724 is currently dead in Congress.

In February 2004, the ATFE decided to stage a series of tests in the Utah desert to prove how dangerous amateur rocketry could be to Homeland Security. The purpose of the tests was to show that homemade rockets could be used to shoot down airliners and be used to destroy ground targets. In the opening day of their tests, the ATFE attempted to launch a rocket out of a van at an airplane drone. Instead, they set their van on fire. They gave up on claiming that rockets were dangerous to aircraft, but do make the following claims

  1. Hobby rockets can be used to land warheads in the general area of targets on the ground. The ATFE claims that these rockets could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons against ground targets such as the Capital Mall area in Washington, D.C.
  2. APCP can be used to make a bomb. While no details were provided, it is assumed that APCP grains were put inside a sealed, cast iron pipe and ignited. The over pressurization of the pipe caused it to fragment, which sent pieces flying through the air.
  3. APCP can be used to initiate a high explosive material. No details were provided on this as APCP used by the hobby does not detonate. Detonation is usually used to initiate another explosive. It is possible the APCP was ignited, which in turn ignited a high explosive that then detonated.

In April 2004, Judge Reggie B. Walton of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued a summary judgement in the NAR and TRA lawsuit. The court ruled that fully assembled sport rocket motors are propellant-actuated devices (PADs) and exempt from the ATFE permit requirements. This meant that fully assembled motors did not require ATFE storage requirements and that users did not need an ATFE license.

Also in April, ATFE agent Chuck Turner went to Al's Hobby Shop and bought a LOC Nuke kit, a CTI case, and three 3-grain smokey reloads. Turner explained that the materials would be used at the Glynco, Georgia ATFE academy where they are training agents in rocketry.

In August 2004, the ATFE issued a response to frequently asked questions (FAQ) on rocketry. In their response, they completely ignored the ruling of the court regarding PAD exemptions for fully assembled motors. They were ready to enforce the previous rules regarding the 62.5 gram limit on APCP. In addition, they claimed that all rocket igniters, except those used in Estes class motors, were now on the ATFE Explosives list. Shortly after this, the ATFE made an unannounced visit to Al's Hobby Shop. The female ATFE agent proceeded to enforce the rules listed in the FAQ on Rocketry booklet. This first encounter at Al's Hobby Shop was the beginning of a once a week harassment campaign by the ATFE against the business. The visits include inspecting the explosives locker and paperwork. Todate, the female agent has logged over 100 hours at Al's while her partner has logged about 40 hours. The ATFE agents often come together to the shop.

In September 2004, U.S. Representative Maurice Hinchey (NY-22) introduced legislation to put ammonium nitrate, potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate on the ATFE explosives list. ATFE permits would be required to buy these materials and an approved ATFE storage magazine would be required to store them. The bill died in House Judiciary Committee.

In October 2004, Judge Walton denied the request by NAR and TRA to (1) order the ATFE to recognize sport rocket motors as propellant actuated devices and to (2) order that the Question and Answer sheet currently posted on the ATF website either be removed or revised. The action was brought by NAR and TRA due to harassment of Al's Hobby Shop by the ATFE. The ruling by the judge puts the question of whether fully assembled motors are PADs or not, up in the air. He further ordered that "the parties shall proceed with the litigation of this case as previously scheduled by the Court."

Towards the end of 2004, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) began conducting an intense campaign to require that chemicals used in pyrotechnics and amateur rocketry be sold only to those individuals and companies with ATFE permits. They have been systemically harassing businesses to force them to comply or face expensive legal court action. While the CPSC has no legal basis for their action, they hope the threat of financial ruin in a prolong court battle against the federal government will motivate business owners to bow to CPSC demands. This spring, the Department of Justice started looking for ways to regulate all chemicals via the ATFE. The ATFE enforcement division was cool to the idea, but Justice was determined to pursue it. It is not known at this time if there is any connection between the CPSC harassment campaign and the Department of Justice.

In 2005, the CPSC succeeded in putting the owner of two consumer pyrotechnic companies in Federal prison for selling chemicals that do not require an ATFE permit to individuals who did not have an ATFE permit.

In 2009, the NAR and TRA won a federal court case to remove APCP from the ATFE Explosives List. Amateur rocketeers do not need ATFE permits to make, transport and or use APCP in their rocket motors.