Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Two Wisconsin lawmakers and the National Rifle Association hoisted red flags this week over what they say is a coming legislative proposal to mandate so-called handgun microstamping in Wisconsin.

The goal of microstamping is to track a firearm from spent bullets by etching the gun's make, model, and serial number on the weapon's firing pin, which would copy that information to the cartridge when the gun was fired.

Proponents say microstamping is a dependable, low-cost technology that gives law enforcement an added public-safety tool, allowing them to trace a gun from spent shells left at a crime scene; opponents say it is an unproven technology pushed by anti-gun advocates whose real motives are to drive up the cost of firearm ownership.

As of Friday morning, no legislation had been introduced.

However, the National Rifle Association, state Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) and state Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) all reported that two Milwaukee Democrats, Sen. Spencer Coggs and Leon Young, were circulating a measure for sponsorship.

Under the proposal, according to the National Rifle Association, it would be illegal to sell or transfer any new semi-automatic pistol not capable of microstamping a cartridge case upon firing.

Citing the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute, Grothman and Suder said the legislation would drive up the price of a handgun by as much as $200 and was nothing more than an unfair tax.

The measure, they said in a release, would force responsible gun owners to help pay for investigations into crimes they didn't commit.

"This bill reeks of hypocrisy," Suder said. "We don't charge a tire tax to look into hit-and-run drivers, and we don't charge restaurants more for their knives just because knives are sometimes used to stab people."

Grothman said the technology was easily defeated with household tools - allowing engraved pins to be replaced with unmarked ones - and that, since the engraving was on the cartridge and not the bullet, criminals could simply pick up the evidence and walk away.

For both reasons, he said, the cost was not acceptable.

"The real motive of this proposal is clear - to prevent people from owning guns," Grothman said. "But because that would not be politically viable at this time, the hard left will try to start by keeping guns out of the hands of the poor and the most vulnerable citizens. Founding father George Mason said the best way to enslave people is to disarm them, and that is the way our country is going."

Wisconsin is not alone in the microstamping debate. Similar proposals have been introduced in a number of states and actually enacted in California in 2007, even after a 2006 University of California (Davis) study concluded the legislation was premature.

The California microstamping law takes effect in 2010; law enforcement will be specifically exempt.

On the federal level, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced a bill last year to require microstamping in all new handguns. Then Sen. Barack Obama supported the measure.

Claims, counterclaims, science

Both sides have marshaled their arguments for the coming debate.

Proponents say microstamping enables law enforcement to do what it often can't now - match fired cartridges to, at the very least, the last registered owner of the gun from which the cartridge came. Proponents also tout the technology as a way to track the illegal trade of guns.

What's more, microstamping firms dispute the high cost of installing the technology.

Opponents have their own claims, in addition to the cost and the easy ability to defeat the technology (using diamond-coated files to remove the microstamping, for instance). They say firing pins are replaceable, and firing a large number of rounds will wear down the engraved markings.

In addition, they contend, microstamping cannot be implemented for revolvers that do not eject shell casings, limiting the value of the technology.

Finally, they argue, the technology has not been sufficiently tested.

At least two studies support that latter claim. In March 2008, the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies of Science, called microstamping a "promising" approach but one that nonetheless needed more study, particularly concerning the durability of the microstamps themselves.

The 2006 study at the University of California (Davis) concluded the technology was feasible but variable.

"New technology to link cartridge cases to guns by engraving microscopic codes on the firing pin is feasible, but does not work well for all guns and ammunition tested in a pilot study by researchers from the forensic science program," the university stated in announcing the findings.

More testing in a wider range of firearms was needed, the researchers observed.

"Our study confirms the NRC position that more research should be conducted on this technology," Fred Tulleners, director of the forensic science graduate program at UC Davis, said.

Tulleners is a former director of the California Department of Justice crime labs in Sacramento and Santa Rosa.

In the study, UC Davis graduate student Michael Beddow tested firing pins from six different brands of semi-automatic handguns, two semi-automatic rifles and a shotgun, the university stated. After firing about 2,500 rounds, the letter/number codes on the face of the firing pins were still legible with some signs of wear, though bar codes and dot codes around the edge of the pins were badly worn, officials stated.

Tests on other guns, including .22, .380 and .40-caliber handguns, two semi-automatic rifles and a pump-action shotgun, showed a wide range of results depending on the weapon, the ammunition used and the type of code examined, according to the researchers.

David Howitt, professor of chemical engineering and materials science and chair of the Graduate Group in Forensic Science at UC Davis, supervised the project.