West Coast law change could stamp out gunmakers’ profits
The debate centers around a technique called microstamping, a technology that imprints the shells spit out from handguns with an identifying code. That code is linked to a traceable serial number, which could help police track down owners of a gun fired during a crime.
Gun control advocates laud the move, saying microstamping provides law enforcement agencies with a valuable tool that could help catch criminals who might otherwise avoid prosecution. Opponents counter that the technology is easily defeatable, and would add huge costs to making and selling firearms.
Idea Won’t Die
The California Assembly passed a version of a microstamping bill in May. It must next pass the state Senate, a vote that’s expected sometime in September.
Even if that vote fails, the debate over microstamping likely will not fade. A similar, failed measure was introduced in Maryland last year, and lawmakers in other states have also talked of introducing similar bills. At the federal level, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Congressman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) have advocated a nationwide microstamping requirement for handgun makers.
“As an industry, we will continue to confront this issue for the foreseeable future,” said Lawrence G. Keane, senior vice president for the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation. “I fully expect microstamping to be pushed in California [and] elsewhere in the foreseeable future.”
As California goes, so goes the nation. If passed, the bill requires all semiautomatic handguns sold in the state after 2009 to be equipped with microstamping technology. That’s a lot of guns: California is the world’s seventh-largest economy, home to one in four Americans — and a “significant share” of the market for handguns, according to Keane.
Since gun makers don’t have separate facilities to make guns for different destinations, they would need to adopt microstamping in all of their guns – or just not sell them in California. Neither option is attractive.
Keane, who represents gun manufacturers like West Hartford-based Colt, and Springfield, Mass.-based Smith &Wesson, said complying with the law would add $200 to the price of a handgun. Since most consumer handguns sell typically for less than $1,000, that amounts to a sizable increase.
Microstamping involves microscopically laser-marking the firing pin, the breech face and other internal surfaces of a gun with a specific, eight-digit code. When the gun fires, the firing pin slams into the back of the shell casing of a bullet, igniting the gun powder. By marking the pin, the code is emblazoned on the shell, which is spit out from the side of the gun, leaving a marked shell which could be collected and traced by police.
Manufacturers claim that serializing firing pins, breech faces and other parts creates a logistical nightmare — a major piece of the claimed $200 cost.
Baloney, said Todd E. Lizotte, the Londonderry, N.H.-based inventor of the technology. Adding microstamping to a handgun involves relatively quick, costless modifications to existing parts. Plus, he has agreed to make the technology available royalty-free, meaning near-zero costs per unit to use his patent.
“At the turn of the century this might have been a problem, but not now,” said Lizotte, a conservative, gun-owning, NRA member. The type of serialization required, he said, “is already being done.”
“It doesn’t create an impact here. If they’re saying it does, they are bumbling fools. If we couldn’t do this, we couldn’t build cars.”
Ultimately it’s questions over microstamping’s effectiveness — rather than those of cost and production – that are the bigger complaints of manufacturers.
A study sponsored by the State of California and conducted by Michael Beddow, a University of California at Davis graduate student, found that microstamping works but may not be feasible for all type of guns. Beddow also found that the technology could be disabled through tampering, such as filing off the end of the firing pin.
Of course, that study was never peer-reviewed – a point raised by the University of California Chancellor Larry N. Vanderhoef. Lizotte and supporters of the legislation claim Beddow’s research was flawed, since it used older handguns.
Still, others have pointed out that there are other ways to dilute the efficacy of microstamping, such as scattering shells microstamped by other guns around a crime scene. But that’s a technique requiring a degree of foresight unlikely in most shootings, Lizotte said.
For much of its history, the presence of so many gun makers earned the Connecticut River Valley the nickname “gun valley.” Colt is here. Smith & Wesson is here. Sturm & Ruger Co. calls Fairfield its headquarters. Marlin Firearms was for years a mainstay north of New Haven. Numerous small machine shops throughout the region contract with those handgun makers to supply parts. It’s why the industry’s trade group is based in Newtown.
With so much at stake here, the results of California’s vote are sure to have an echo in gun valley.