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Tech by VICE

Could California's New Bullet Coding Law Actually Curb Gun Violence?

Authorities think so, but some experts are skeptical.

by Greg Thomas
May 25 2013, 4:47pm
Image via Wikimedia.

California this week did what it does best. It took the lead on imposing a controversial technology-driven solution on a major problem without paying much heed to naysayers, skeptics, or, for that matter, expert analysts. This time, the state is tackling gun violence.

Starting now, all handguns sold in the state need to be outfitted with "microstamping" technology, which stamps identifying informationtypically a gun's make, model and serial numberon each bullet fired from its chamber. In microstamping, also called ballistic imprinting, a laser engraves microscopic markings onto the tip of a gun's firing pin and breech face. When fired, the engravings leave a signature on the cartridges. 

The new requirement stems from a law that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed in 2007, but that was delayed until patents on the 1990s microstamping technology expired. A gun owners group called Calguns Foundation tried to further delay the law by paying to extend the microstamping patent. However, the inventor, an engineer and NRA member himself, wanted the patent to expire so the law could take effect.

Cops are stoked on the new law. They use stamped casings to trace guns to their registered owners. Imagine a piece of murder evidence that comes bearing its origin story in plain English.

According to William Kilfoil, the chief of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police: "Microstamping is a proven technology that will revolutionize gun crime investigations ... Even if police find only one shell casing, they have a 54 percent chance of being able to read the microstamp. If they find more casings, the odds of a match are even better," he wrote in a 2010 op-ed in the Syracuse Post-Standard, when New York was considering a similar microstamping requirement.

So whenever anyone fires a bullet from a registered gun, we'll know who it belongs to, we'll track them down. and we'll get answers. Problem solved! Except that there are some laughably simple ways to bypass microstamping in its current, nascent form.

For example, if the firing pin is the part that marks your bullets, why not swap it out for a clean one? Or, if you're worried about cops finding your digits on the shell casing, how about scratching them off? 

In fact, researchers at UC Davis studying microstamping in 2006 concluded that the codes on shell casings could be scratched off with "household items." Also, during tests, the firing pin didn't always deliver a clean code. More from that report:

At the current time it is not recommended that a mandate for implementation of this technology in all semiautomatic handguns in the state of California be made. Further testing, analysis and evaluation is required.

After the law passed, in 2008, the researchers released another, more optimistic report. The gear codes "transferred well" to shell casings. However, since the researchers didn't have access to "patented information allowing them to read" the codes, they couldn't determine if the codes were "legible enough to be useful."

While the Davis reports weren't damning, they certainly don't suggest that microstamping is ready to be signed into law. About 40 percent of homicides in California go unsolved, according to state Attorney General Kamala Harris, and many of the cases involve handguns.

"This is not going to help solve crimes," says NRA attorney C.D. Michel. "It's easily defeated, easily wears out and can be used to lead police down false alleys."

Michel says that the new law constitutes a handgun banbecause manufacturers won't go to the trouble of microstamping only some of their gunsand has threatened to sue the state over the new law.

The impact to manufacturers can't be understated, says TrackingPoint CEO Jason Schauble, whose company makes precision rifles. Microstamping could "fundamentally impact the business" of making handguns, he says, potentially to the tune of an added cost of $200 per gun passed on to the consumer.

"Firearm manufacturing still remains a very manual process yet the ability to determine if the appropriate serialized parts are in the correct firearm will fall to humans and be next to impossible to complete," Schauble told Motherboard. "Once this inevitable consequence of manufacturing reality is admitted as fact in the courts, the whole serialization mandate becomes suspect."

Although far from perfect, microstamping is a bold plan to combat gun violence at a time when federal lawmakers are locked in perpetual stalemate on gun control. If it's a question of tweaking the technology, surely California can find a solution.

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