What is microstamping?
Microstamping is the next generation of ballistic identification technology that would allow police to positively link used cartridge cases recovered at crime scenes to the firearms and criminals that fired them.
How does microstamping work?
The basic technology of microstamping involves the use of lasers to make extremely precise, microscopic markings on the firing pin and breech face of a semiautomatic handgun. These engravings stamp cartridge casing before they are ejected from a firearm and identify the make, model and serial number of the weapon through alphanumeric and geometric codes. The technology promises to greatly aid law enforcement officials in investigating homicides and other gun crimes.
Don’t police already use ballistic technology to solve gun crimes?
The ballistic imaging technology currently in use by most law enforcement agencies relies on comparison of the subtle, unintentional markings left by firearms on shell casings. However, this technology can match a cartridge found at a crime scene to the firearm it came from only if the crime gun is recovered. When a crime gun is not recovered at the scene, investigators receive return hits from the current ballistics identification system, the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN), less than 1.5% of the time. In many cases, these “hits” are only matches to other cartridges found at other crime scenes—letting investigators know that the firearm has been used in another crime without actually identifying the weapon.
Microstamping, however, intentionally stamps a code on expended cartridges, ensuring that every casing will bear the serial number of the gun that fired it and eliminating the need to locate the gun or obtain a second casing for comparison.
What about the Second Amendment and the right to privacy?
Federal law already requires every firearm made or imported into the United States to have a unique serial number stamped on its frame. Manufacturers and importers are required to keep records identifying the buyer of each gun and its serial number, and firearm dealers must keep sales records with the name and address of every retail purchaser. This system of record keeping allows law enforcement to trace guns recovered in the course of criminal investigations to their original purchasers while avoiding the need for the government to assemble a list of gun owners. Microstamping simply improves the usefulness of the existing tracing system by putting each gun’s serial number on the shell casings it fires. Microstamping does not collect any new personal information from gun owners or limit gun ownership in any way. The technology is utilized only when a gun is used in a crime.
Why is it important to identify a crime gun’s serial number?
Microstamping technology stamps a code identifying a firearm’s serial number directly onto spent cartridges as they are ejected from a handgun at a crime scene. With this serial number, investigators can identify not only the crime gun, but also the point of first retail purchase of the firearm and its original purchaser. This is critical information for law enforcement as they investigate a homicide or other violent crime—and there is no need for them to physically recover the crime gun itself to obtain it.
With trace data gleaned from microstamped handguns, law enforcement officials can become more proficient at putting traffickers behind bars and curbing the flow of illegal guns on America’s streets. The ability to directly identify firearms’ serial numbers from cartridges found at crime scenes would significantly increase the number of successful crime gun traces performed by law enforcement officers. This would provide investigators with greater amounts of data to work with when mapping regional and national trends in illegal firearms trafficking. Furthermore, “straw purchasers” with a clean criminal record would be far less likely to purchase firearms for prohibited buyers if they believed those guns could be easily traced back to them after being used in crimes.
What is currently being done to implement microstamping?
On October 13, 2007, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed historic microstamping legislation into law in California. The law will require all new semiautomatic handguns sold in California to include microstamping technology as of January 1, 2010.
Mayor Adrian Fenty signed a similar microstamping law in the District of Columbia in January 2009. It will take effect on January 1, 2011.
Microstamping is now drawing interest from policy makers in multiple states, including Wisconsin, New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut and New York. Federal microstamping legislation was introduced in the House and Senate during the second session of the 110th Congress.