by Dave Workman
California gun rights activists are digging in for a battle now that the state Assembly has passed legislation that would require that by 2010 all new semi-automatic handguns sold in the state must feature microscopic engravings on the firing pin and breech face that mark spent shell casings.
Assembly Bill 1471 will now be considered by the California state Senate, where opponents hope to stop it.
The so-called “Microstamping” technology was developed by NanoMark Technologies, a division of ID Dynamics. Testing reportedly determined that the firing pin impression, which features eight digits, is transferred to the primer of a cartridge 100% of the time, though all eight digits are legible only 97% of the time. The breech face marks transferred 96% of the time, according to a NanoMark news release.
Curiously, that news release was forwarded by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. Todd Lizotte, who owns the patent on this technology, told Gun Week that the gun control group distributed the news release because “they have looked at the technology as being useful.”
Lizotte is a member of the National Rifle Association, and a self-described “Second Amendment guy and a Castle Doctrine guy; a conservative Republican from New Hampshire” who makes annual contributions to NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. He promised that the Microstamping technology would be provided royalty-free to firearms manufacturers with gunmaking facilities in the United States.
Many activists in the firearms community are not convinced that the technology will work, and they argue that even if it does, passing such a requirement will not stop criminals, who will simply continue using stolen guns or firearms obtained on the black market or brought in from another state where Microstamping is not required. Ultimately, suggested Joe Waldron, executive director of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, the only people affected by this legislation will be law-abiding citizens.
Waldron predicted that Microstamping will drive up the cost of handguns, and add one more layer of discouragement to gun ownership in California.
Further, he noted that criminals will use revolvers that do not expel empty casings at a crime scene.
Too, there are concerns that the California legislature, which is in the firm control of anti-gunners, may pass legislation holding the owners of microstamped guns liable for crimes committed with their firearms even if the guns are stolen or lost.
Not everyone is convinced the technology is as good as claimed. The University of California, Davis forensic science program also tested it on some guns. Graduate student Michael Beddow reportedly tested microstamped firing pins on six brands of semi-auto handguns, two semi-auto rifles and a shotgun. Firing pins in this test had three different types of codes engraved into the firing pins.
He put engraved firing pins in six Smith & Wesson .40-caliber pistols obtained from the California Highway Patrol. Beddow reportedly fired about 2,500 rounds through the guns, and while codes on the firing pin faces were legible with some wear, other types of codes that were stamped around the edges of the pins did not fare so well.
There were tests on other guns, in .22 Long Rifle, .380 ACP and .40-caliber and these tests reportedly showed a “wide range of results.”
Beddow’s testing has been criticized, yet also used as further evidence that the technology works, by anti-gun organizations. Even the chancellor at UC Davis has criticized his experiment.
Lizotte issued a statement noting, “If Michael Beddow would have allowed us access to the firearms used in his test as we requested, we could have optimized the firing pins.”
Yet Beddow, along with others, identified what may be the Achilles heel of this technology: A few strokes with a file on the firing pin and the breech face of a pistol and a person can destroy or erode the imprint enough to make it unreliable at the very least. If a person were to simply swap out the firing pin of a new pistol for one that is not etched, and gently run a file across the breech face, that would likely destroy the microstamp.
Lizotte acknowledged to Gun Week this is a possibility, but contended that the majority of criminals are not going to take the time to strip down a pistol and work it over with a file.
Currently, about 45% of gun-related crimes in California start off as “cold cases,” Lizotte said, because there are no witnesses and no leads. He said Microstamping is “one more tool” for law enforcement, an opinion reportedly shared by Fred Tulleners, former director of the California Department of Justice crime lab in Sacramento, and director of the forensics program.
Lizotte acknowledged that “a certain percentage” of guns used in California crimes are obtained through illegal means, including theft, street buys and straw purchases. Yet he maintained that Microstamping will give police an additional lead “and maybe help establish a history of that firearm, how it migrated” into criminal hands.
“You should always give law enforcement the biggest advantage possible in order to target trafficking, straw purchases and illicit arms sales,” he said.
Lizotte seemed genuinely distressed that Microstamping has become a “political football.” He said Microstamping is preferable to so-called “ballistic imaging” where a fired cartridge case is used to enter a firearm into a databank.
“I don’t want to have my firearm signature placed in a database when I’m not a criminal,” he said.