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TRIPOLI ROCKETRY, et al v. BUREAU OF ALCOHOL

The following is a brief history of the lawsuit hobby rocket enthusiasts filed against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms.

February 11, 2000

On February 11, 2000, Tripoli Rocketry Association, Inc. and the National Association of Rocketry filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

The suit claims that the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) applies "onerous and prohibitive civil regulations" against sport rocketry hobbyists due to the Bureau's improper designation of APCP as an explosive.

APCP is the propellant used by most hobby rocket motors. APCP is not an explosive and cannot be used as an explosive. Nevertheless, the ATF included APCP on its list of regulated explosives.

The February, 2000, law suit including three major claims. First, APCP does not function by explosion or explode when ignited and, therefore, should not be on ATF's explosives list. Second, motors used in sport rockets are "propellant actuated devices," which are wholly exempt from ATF regulation under the Explosives Control Act. Third, the ATF did not follow its own procedures when adding APCP to the explosives list.

April 30, 2000

On April 30, 2002, Tripoli and the NAR presented their initial case before Judge Reggie B. Walton. In this hearing, the plaintiffs, Tripoli and the NAR, sought an injuction against the ATF's regulation of rocket motors containing more than 62.5 grams of propellant. Historically, the ATF had not regulated motors that contained propellant grains weighing 62.5 grams or less even if the total weight of the propellant exceeded 62.5 grams. But, near the end of the year 2000, the ATF stated that any motor in which the total propellant weight exceeded 62.5 was regulated.

The plaintiffs argued that this change in regulation was made without the ATF following its rule-making procedures. And that the 62.5 gram weight limit was arbitrary. The plaintiffs pointed out the absurdity of a motor reload kit containing one 62.5 propellant grain being unregulated while an explosives permit is required to buy a reload kit containing two of the exact same propellant grains.

Because the plaintiffs failed to show conclusively that irreparable harm would occur to the hobby or hobbyists if the injuction was not granted, the judge ruled in favor of the ATF and did not issue an injuction.

August - October, 2002

On August 30, 2002, Tripoli and the NAR filed a "motion for summary judgement" in the case. This set off a flurry of activity, but no immediate responses from the court.

March 19, 2004

On March 19, 2004, Judge Walton issued a ruling saying that the "defendant's motion for summary judgment on the claim regarding its classification of Ammonium Perchlorate Composite Propellant ("APCP") as an explosive is GRANTED." This ruling was a defeat for Tripoli and the NAR. But, the plaintiffs scored a minor victory with the judge ruling that assembled rocket motors are "Propellant Actuated Devices" and, therefore, exempt from regulation.

August 5, 2005

On August 5, 2005, Tripoli and the NAR challenged the judge's ruling that APCP is an explosive by filing an appeal with the United States Court of Appeals.

February 10, 2006

On February 10, 2006, the Court of Appeals ruled in Tripoli and the NAR's favor. "This court routinely defers to administrative agencies on matters," the senior judge wrote, but...

The problem in this case is that ATFE's explanation for its determination that APCP deflagrates lacks any coherence. We therefore owe no deference to ATFE's purported expertise because we cannot discern it. ATFE has neither laid out a concrete standard for classifying materials along the burn-deflagrate-detonate continuum, nor offered data specific to the burn speed of APCP when used for its "common or primary purpose."

The appeals court sent the case back to the district court.

April 20, 2006

On April 20, 2006, Judge Walton, acting on the orders of the appeals court, directed the ATF to perform independant tests to determine if APCP is an explosive.

October 13, 2006

On October 13, 2006, the ATF filed papers with the court stating that their testing shows that APCP is an explosive.

October 17, 2006

At a status hearing, the ATF surprises the court by delivering a 900+ page document about the APCP testing. The judge orders a new status hearing for July 27, 2007.

Reviewers of the ATF's documentation of the APCP tests quickly discovered that the testers made an obvious mistake in calculating how fast APCP burns in typical rocket motors. The testers calculated the burn rate by dividing the length of the motor by the time it took to burn. But, the motors tested have a central core and the propellant burns radially - from the center outwards. The proper way to determine the burn rate is to divide the distance from the outside of the edge of the core to the outside edge of the propellant by the time of burn. When the ATF's figures are updated to use the correct calculations, they show that APCP burns slower than typing paper and is definitely not an explosive.

2007

Both parties made a number of filings in early 2007 including motions for summary judgment.

Just before the scheduled July, 2007, status hearing, the judge cancelled the hearing stating that he had enough information to render his decision.

2008

Having heard nothing from the court in over a year, Tripoli and the NAR, on October 1, 2008, filed a motion for an oral argument on the plantiff's request for a summary judgement.

2009

On February 17, 2009, Judge Walton granted the plantiff's request and scheduled a hearing for March 13, 2009.

March 13, 2009

At the hearing Judge Reggie Walton stated that he was inclined to agree with the position of the NAR and Tripoli and that a formal ruling will be made in April.

March 16, 2009

Judge Reggie Walton released his ruling in the case.

The Judge ruled in favor of Tripoli and the NAR, declaring that APCP is not an explosive and cannot be regulated by the BATF:

Considering the number of years that have elapsed during which time the plaintiffs have awaited final resolution of the merits of their claims, the fact that this matter has already been remanded once to the agency for further action consistent with the Circuit's decision, and it appearing that vacating the agency's decision will not pose any serious threat to the public's health or safety, the Court will vacate the agency's decision to classify APCP as an explosive pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 841(d).

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