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By Neelesh Moorthy June 23, 2016

Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore incorrectly claims AR-15 bullets banned by Geneva Convention

Filmmaker and liberal commentator Michael Moore made a provocative claim about the ammunition used in the June 12 Orlando shooting — that it is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions.

"Ammo used in AR-15/M-16 is banned by Geneva Convention," Moore tweeted June 14. "It enters the body, spins & explodes. Show the crime scene photos and the NRA is over."  

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reported June 12 that Omar Mateen had been in possession of a 9 millimeter semiautomatic pistol and a .223 caliber AR-type rifle. The latter was later identified as a Sig Sauer MCX rifle by the gun shop owner who sold Mateen the gun. Law enforcement has not released the exact type of .223-caliber ammunition used as of this fact-check’s publication.

Still, many people responded on Twitter to Moore trying to debunk his tweet, so we took a closer look. We contacted Moore's office but didn't hear back. 

What is the Geneva Convention?

The 1949 Geneva Conventions are a set of treaties and protocols dictating the humane treatment of people during war. For example, they prohibit torture, hostage-taking, deportation and execution without "judicial guarantees."

In particular, the Conventions prescribe protections for various classes — the ill, medical workers, prisoners of war and civilians during wartime.

The main text of the Geneva Convention treaties does not include any specific mention of prohibited ammunition, and neither do the supplementary protocols.

The closest thing to Moore’s claim is Article 35 of the first protocol. It prohibits "weapons, projectiles and materials … causing superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering" but does not offer further clarification.

In any case, the Geneva Convention does not apply to domestic weapon use, said Dan Joyner, a professor of law at the University of Alabama. Only wartime.

"No source of international law prohibits the sale or use within a country of any particular kind of ammunition," Joyner said.

Mateen’s declaration of allegiance to ISIS does give the incident an international character, but the Conventions primarily apply to issues between nation-factions.

Different conventions

We looked at other international conventions to see if they banned certain ammunition. Some do, but experts suggested Mateen’s ammunition might not qualify, again because these agreements are binding for traditional warfare, not domestic purchases.

The first appearance of an ammunition ban in international treaties comes in the 1868 Declaration of St. Petersburg, which bans explosive or flammable projectiles weighing less than 400 grams.

Declaration III of the 1899 Hague Convention bans bullets that "expand or flatten" upon entering the body — commonly known as "hollow-point bullets." The same language is included in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The catch? Hague only applies "in the case of war" between two or more signatories. Rome only creates jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Case in point, the International Committee of the Red Cross notes that many parties to the Hague Convention use "expanding bullets" in their domestic police forces.

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Gary Mauser, professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University, said Moore’s claim errs in relating the Orlando shooting to the Convention.

"That ban does not apply to the attacker in Orlando since he was not part of a formal military force," Mauser said.

In its newly set International Small Arms Control Standards, the United Nations has recently included a ban on a narrowly defined type of armor-piercing ammunition. However, these protocols are only guidance for how countries could choose to behave domestically, Mauser said.

"ISACS recommendations are merely recommendations, and do not have the force of law, either internationally or within any nation," said Mauser, who is also an ISACS expert advisor.

The bullets

Experts are unsure whether Mateen’s ammunition matches what the treaties describe anyway, as law enforcement officials have not yet released the exact type of bullet Mateen used.

George Mocsary, a professor of law at Southern Illinois University, said that the vast majority of AR-15 bullets (mentioned in Moore’s tweet) are .223 "full metal jackets."

These, Mocsary said, would not violate any conventions because they are "not expanding," "not explosive," and "not armour-piercing by the ISACS definition." Mocsary did, however, note that many .223 rounds can penetrate some armour simply by nature of being shot from a rifle.

However, investigators have not confirmed whether "full metal jackets" were in fact what Mateen used.

Tim O’Rourke, an investigator for The Grafton Group forensic science firm, said it is impossible to definitively characterize Mateen’s rounds without further information. It is possible and legal to purchase hollow-point "controlled expansion" rounds in Florida, he said.

Regarding what Moore tweeted about the bullets’ "spin," O’Rourke noted it is possible for bullets to "tumble" in the body depending on contingent factors such as barrel length and distance fired.

O’Rourke noted, however, that the bullets would not be designed to explode or detonate in the body.

Nonetheless, doctors treating the injuries noted the severe damage done to victim’s bodies, such as "big, giant cavities" in the victims.

One mentioned that bullets struck with such force that ripple effects damaged even nearby tissue.

"It actually puts kinetic energy into tissue that it didn't hit," said doctor John M. Porter in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It can go next to the liver and still destroy the liver."

Our ruling

Moore tweeted that the Geneva Convention prohibits the type of ammunition used in the Orlando shooting. However, the Geneva Convention does not deal with ammunition.

Other international conventions do prohibit certain ammunition, but only during wartime, not domestically. Even if they were binding domestically, experts are not sure whether Mateen’s bullets qualify, given the limited information released from law enforcement.

That being said, Moore’s tweet does emphasize the amount of damage these bullets inflicted. Even if his specifics might be off, doctors’ reports support Moore on the general point about damages.

We rate Moore’s claim False.

Our Sources

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives official Twitter account, "Orlando guns," June 12, 2016

New York Post, "Weapons used in nightclub shooting bought at ex-NYPD cop’s gun shop," June 13, 2016

International Committee of the Red Cross, "The Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949"

American Red Cross, "Summary of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Their Additional Protocols," April 2011

Yale Law School, "Laws of War: Declaration on the Use of Bullets Which Expand or Flatten Easily in the Human Body; July 29, 1899"

United Nations, "Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court"

International Committee of the Red Cross, "Practice Relating to Rule 77. Expanding Bullets"

International Committee of the Red Cross, "Rule 77. Expanding Bullets"

Florida Senate Website Archive, "Chapter 790: Weapons and Firearms," accessed  June 16, 2016

United Nations, "Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects," July 2001

United Nations, "International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons," December 2005

United Nations, "Protocol Against The Illicit Manufacturing Of And Trafficking In Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime,"

United Nations, "The Arms Trade Treaty"

International Small Arms Control Standards, "National regulation of civilian access to small arms and light weapons," June 11, 2015

International Small Arms Control Standards, "Glossary of terms, definitions and abbreviations," April 22, 2016

The Hill, "ATF shelves bullet ban proposal," March 10, 2015

The Philadelphia Inquirer, "Doctors: High-velocity Orlando rifle inflicts ‘devastating wounds," June 16, 2016.

Email Interview with Gary Mauser, professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University, June 15, 2016

Phone Interviews with George Mocsary, professor of law at Southern Illinois University, June 15, 2016

Email Interview with Daniel Joyner, professor of law at the University of Alabama, June 15, 2016

Email Interview with Steven Howard, lawyer and ammunitions experts, June 15, 2016

Phone Interviews with Tim O’Rourke, investigator at The Grafton Group investigative firm, June 16, 2016

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Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore incorrectly claims AR-15 bullets banned by Geneva Convention

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