ATLANTA -- With his proposal last week to levy enormous taxes on highly destructive hollow-point handgun ammunition, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan focused the gun-control debate on the chilling, precise world of physics, terminal-wound ballistics and penetration factors.
Saying that high-performance bullets, which mushroom upon impact, "have no purpose other than to cause the greatest possible destruction of human life," Mr. Moynihan proposed raising the tax on them by up to 10,000 percent.
But law enforcement officials and gun owners say the advanced ammunition is the perfect bullet to stop a criminal in his tracks without passing through to hit a bystander.
"There is no magic bullet, but this is about the closest thing to it," said Col. Leonard J. Supenski, a ballistics expert and chief of technical services for the Baltimore County Police Department.
"It has the stopping power that police officers need, and it is less likely to ricochet or go through the bad guy. As it expands it dumps all of the kinetic energy of the bullet into the target."
Under the proposal by Mr. Moynihan, a New York Democrat, law-enforcement agencies would be exempt from the ammunition tax, whose proceeds would be used to help pay for President Clinton's health care overhaul.
For the average gun owner, the tax could raise the price of the box of 20 cartridges from its current $16 to as much as $1,600.
Such figures prompt guffaws on the part of manufacturers.
"At prices like that, there won't be any tax proceeds to finance the health care reforms," said Larry McGee, the marketing and communications director of the Eldorado Cartridge Company of Boulder City, Nev., which produces the Starfire brand of high performance cartridge.
Mr. Moynihan acknowledges that his proposal is intended less to raise money than "to bring the cost of ammunition in line with the cost it imposes on society."
As the high-performance bullets flatten out upon impact and expand outward like the petals of a blossoming flower, they develop razor-sharp edges or spines that tear more tissue and bone as the bullet penetrates.
"It will provide a good permanent wound size and still penetrate deeply enough to reach vital organs," a review of various brands in Hand Gunning magazine said this spring.
Doctors say they have never seen more lethal projectiles and say the high-performance bullets pose a special hazard to them. "You have to ask the question, 'Why do we need to be so destructive?' " said Dr. John McCabe, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.
"The question is especially important when you consider that health care professionals trying to treat such wounds risk being cut themselves on the bullet's sharp edges."
Rep. Thomas Barrett, a Wisconsin Democrat, said late last month that he would introduce legislation to ban the bullets to all but law enforcement officials.
Marketed under names like Black Talon, Starfire and Hydro-Shok, the ammunition is touted in the advertising for its "unsurpassed stopping power" and its "knockdown power."
Those attributes have made it popular with handgun owners, who say their main reason for keeping a weapon is self-defense rather than target practice or hunting.
Some gun owners ridiculed Mr. Moynihan's proposed tax as they shopped last week at the Tucker Gun Shop just north of Atlanta.
"It's the ravings of a nut case and just another way for the gun control lobby to try to outlaw guns," said Charles Harris, a marketing consultant, as he bought some expanding hollow-point ammunition for his .45-caliber revolver. "This kind of bullet will get the attention of someone, whereas a smaller, solid round will just go right through them."
And Bill Carter, owner of four gun stores in the Houston area, said the deadliness of the ammunition as compared with more conventional,solid rounds was no more of a problem than other things in society.
But the expanding bullets, advocates of gun control point out, are for sale to both good guys and bad.
When Gian Luigi Ferri killed eight people and wounded six others in a San Francisco high-rise last July, the bullets he used in his .45-caliber handgun were Black Talons.
In New York City, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said he supported the concept of controlling ammunition to supplement measures like the Brady bill, which would impose a five-day delay on handgun purchases.
"We have between a million and 1.7 million guns in New York City," he said. "The Brady bill could stem the flow of new guns, but what do you do with the guns already here? Guns don't deteriorate, whereas ammunition is easier to control."