The Latest Crime-Solving Technique the Gun Lobby Doesn’t Like

Marking bullets with tiny codes could fight crime, but there's a battle raging over using such technology

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Reed Saxon / AP

A bullet casing showing identification codes, at center, is shown through a microscope at a news conference at the Los Angeles Police Academy

It sounds like something from a futuristic thriller: police pick up spent bullet shells, find a tiny code on them that reveals what gun they were shot from and then use the ID to track down the killer. The technology to do this, called microstamping, is actually available today, but what’s stopping it from being used — and many criminals from being caught — is politics.

There are battles raging across the U.S. over microstamping, with supporters of the new technology squaring off against the gun lobby, which is strongly opposed. It is hard to see why the critics are so upset — and why they put so little value on microstamping’s potential to help fight crime.

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Gun violence in the U.S. is an epidemic. American gun-ownership rates are the highest in the world, with a remarkable 88 guns per 100 people. America also ranks No. 1 out of the top 26 high- and middle-income countries in gun mortality. In an average year, almost 100,000 people in the U.S. are shot or killed with a gun.

When police investigate gun crimes, they are often stymied by a lack of evidence. Guns are involved in the vast majority of murders, and according to the FBI, nearly 40% of all killings go unsolved because of lack of evidence. In many shootings, bullet casings are the only tangible evidence police have.

This is where microstamping comes in. If it were required, every gun would need to have a microscopic code stamped on the tip of its firing pin. When a bullet leaves the gun, its shell casing would be stamped with the code, which could be retrieved from the casings found at crime scenes. The code could lead the police to the person who fired the gun — or at least to its original purchaser.

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When the gun lobby fights gun-control legislation, its logic is clear: it does not like laws that prevent people from owning or using guns. But microstamping does neither. These codes just make people who fire guns accountable for where their bullets end up. Gun owners who use their guns lawfully shouldn’t be concerned.

Critics of microstamping have put forth an array of weak objections. They argue it’s too expensive. But the cost has been estimated at between 50¢ and $6 a gun — hardly a budget breaker. They also argue that the technology is not reliable. But a new study funded by the Department of Justice has found that when two shell casings are recovered, the code can be read 90% to 99% of the time.

The opposition to microstamping is the sort of knee-jerk reaction that gun-rights activists generally have to any law that affects gun use in any way — no matter how reasonable or beneficial. It’s the same reasoning that has led the gun lobby to oppose banning assault weapons and so-called cop-killer bullets.

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Despite the weakness of their case, the opponents of microstamping have been winning so far. Only one state — California — has enacted a law that requires microstamping, and since it was signed in 2007, it has been blocked by fights over patents. New York’s legislature is considering a microstamping bill as well, but it isn’t clear if it will gain any traction. One political blog reported that the National Rifle Association (NRA) had been “flooding Albany with cash” — a major obstacle to getting the bill through. Bills in at least four other states have also stalled.

The gun lobby has been on a roll. In recent years, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Second Amendment in a pro-gun way and used it to strike down municipal gun-control laws. Members of Congress are so afraid of the NRA that strong federal gun control has been a dead letter for years. Having done so well on the issues that really affect hunters and other lawful gun owners, the gun lobby should lighten up on the ones that do not — like microstamping — and show the nation that gun owners care not only about their own rights but also about the rights of innocent victims of gun violence.

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17 comments
rgschreib
rgschreib

Besides Microstamping, we also have an unused option called 'UPC Bullet Tagging'. That is, it is now technically possible to microstamp or micro-laser etch UPCs (Universal Product Codes) on all bullet shells. UPCs are the bar codes on all of the products you buy in the store that get laser scanned by the clerk to ring up your bill. By having everyone purchase all their bullets with any major credit card, or a special 'Bullet Card' dupped from your driver's license if you prefer buying with cash, then, in the event of the bullets being fired in a gun crime, the police or CSI people can retrieve the expelled bullet cartridges or shells, scan the tiny UPC on them under magnification, and use long established software to immediately trace them back to whoever purchased them in the first place. This is long established technology, OLD stuff, but the same arguements against Microstamping, keep this CSI option to fight gun crime from being implemented.

12rmp123
12rmp123

Let's write about how the gun lobby feels about something, and as illogical as their point of view may seem to us, let's not contact any of them for details on their claims.

TimothyAdams
TimothyAdams

"In recent years, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Second Amendment in a pro-gun way..." That's 

because
the
Second
Amendment
is
pro-gun!




EaglesPain
EaglesPain

Skipping completely the pro/con of gun control, just based on the practical, simple engineering aspects of micro-stamping firing pins...this is an absurd half measure. It only takes minutes to change out a weapon's firing pin...and only a little more time and effort to create or procure a replacement.

tinklebrook
tinklebrook

What drivel.  "Gun violence in the U.S. is an epidemic." ?!?    Word choices matter, I have even seen it referred to as a "plague"

In 2010 there were 358 deaths involving rifles, the rest were handguns. Just over half of all gun-related deaths in the United States are suicides, with 17,352 (55.6%) of the total 31,224 firearm-related deaths in 2007 being suicide deaths, and 12,632 (40.5%) were homicide deaths

In a country with a population of 350 million people, with a ratio of more than 1 gun per adult we have 12,632 gun related homicides of which 75% are criminal on criminal violence and you call that an epidemic?  

Even if you count the criminal on criminal gun violence you have a .00003609 % chance of being a victim of gun violence. If you are not involved in the drug trade, your chances plummet even lower.

What drivel.

MikeRohan
MikeRohan

If a person is going to shoot someone, and they are a criminal, what’s to stop them from committing the crime of just filing off the microstamp? I dont think they would care about being caught with a firearm with a filed off microstamp if they just KILLED someone

mycomment42
mycomment42

"Gun owners who use their guns lawfully shouldn’t be concerned."  This is the same argument that supports "stop and frisk" laws, and the Patriot Act.  If you aren't a criminal, why should you be concerned? 

JasonSmith
JasonSmith

JCVillar What would microstamping have to do with self defense? If you legally shoot someone in self defense, it makes no difference if your gun is microstamped or not. So why not require them for all the other (and completely more numerous) occasions of non-self defense cases?

JCVillar
JCVillar

The US ranks 12th worldwide in gun mortality rates.  This playing with statistics is enough to impeach the credibility of the entire article.  Given that criminal use of guns is executed with stolen guns, the microstamp serves only to identify those used in self defense.  I read a lot of gun control articles like these and thaey always have one thing in common:  they never even attempt to assemble statistics on the self-defense use of firearms.

12rmp123
12rmp123

@EaglesPain ...Or use a revolver.

I don't know how quick it would be for most to create a reliable firing pin...but your point still stands!

cryptzog
cryptzog

@MikeRohan This sounds like a perfect way for a criminal to frame someone else.

12rmp123
12rmp123

@JasonSmith One reason is that to be accurate, you must practice.  To practice, you should go to the range and fire (and stamp) many rounds.

Unless you very meticulously clean up and bring home all of your own brass, the next guy at the range can collect your stamped brass and toss it at a crime scene, implementing an innocent gun owner.

Another is that the cost to retool the factories to engrave and match up every firing pin to every gun correctly, and have proper QC in place, and to send replacement 'stamped' pins to owners who need them without fouling the system up, requires R&D for EVERY different type of pin, and a new, much slower process to match up the parts.  In New York, this would be onerous enough to cause century-old manufacturing to have to close shop because of the costs involved.

cryptzog
cryptzog

@JCVillar Exactly.  If a policeman shoots and kills a criminal, it is still considered a death caused by a firearm.


12rmp123
12rmp123

@WilfTarquin @TimothyAdams You're both wrong.  It's pro-people.

Guns don't kill people, nor can they defend liberty.  Only people can; that is why it is a right of the people, and not 'pro-gun'.  The 2nd amendment is a right, and inanimate objects like guns aren't endowed with rights.

The 'militia' is one specific reason that the right is acknowledged (not 'given').  For over 200 years people have been defending themselves, hunting, competing, and target shooting with guns, and nowhere does the law have a problem with that.  The creation of a 'militia' is a good solid reason, but gun ownership and lawful use is a right.

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

@12rmp123 @WilfTarquin @TimothyAdams No, read the text: it states that since a popular militia is necessary for the security of the nation, the citizens must be allowed to bear arms. The motivation for the second amendment is _the militia_. There is lots of documentation that the founders distrusted standing professional armies, considering them to lead to oppression and dictatorship, and instead wanted a popular militia to handle the defense of the country, like in Switzerland.

That didn't happen.