For years, law enforcement has been stymied by an inability to draw significant leads from ballistic evidence recovered at crime scenes. When a crime gun is not physically recovered at a crime scene, investigators receive return hits from bullet and cartridge evidence entered into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network only 1.5% of the time. In many cases, these “hits” are only matches to cartridges found at other crimes scenes—letting investigators know that the firearm has been used in another crime without actually identifying the weapon. The national “clearance” rate for homicide cases in 2005 was only 62%.
Thankfully, “microstamping” technology has been developed to address this problem. Microstamping utilizes lasers to make precise, microscopic engravings on the internal mechanisms of a handgun, such as the breech face and firing pin. As the gun is fired, information identifying the make, model and serial number of the gun is stamped onto the cartridge as alphanumeric and geometric codes. The technology allows law enforcement to trace firearms directly through cartridge casings found at crime scenes, without any need to recover the crime gun itself.
Seeking to avoid reform at all costs, the gun lobby has repeatedly attacked microstamping technology as unproven and unreliable. A recent test of the technology, however, has once again discredited that claim.
Microstamping’s co-inventors, Todd Lizotte and Orest Ohar, presented a research paper at the SPIE Optics & Technology Conference in San Diego in August 2008 covering the testing of a .45 Cal Colt 1991 A1 Commander semiautomatic pistol. This represented the first peer-reviewed publication of fully optimized and current state-of-the-art microstamping technology as applied to firearms.
During the stress test, Lizotte and Ohar fired 1,500 rounds from the Colt handgun. This firearm was purchased as a used model and equipped with microstamping technology. Using simple Optical Microscopy, Lizotte and Ohar achieved identifiable marks from the Colt’s expended cartridges over 95% of the time. The rounds were fired consecutively and each cartridge was collected and meticulously catalogued, allowing future researchers to review the evidence for themselves.
This followed a previous test in May 2007 that demonstrated the endurance and durability of the technology. During that test, Lizotte and Ohar fired over 2,500 rounds from a microstamped Smith and Wesson .40 caliber semiautomatic handgun using five different brands of ammunition. Microstamped markings from the firing pin were transferred successfully 97% of the time using both Optical Microscopy and Scanning Electron Microscopy. Additionally, breech face markings transferred to cartridge casings 96% of the time.
These tests demonstrate the viability of microstamping under even the most extreme conditions, but very rarely are handguns fired thousands of times before being used in crimes. A 2000 ATF study found that semiautomatic handguns have the shortest median “time-to-crime” of any firearm type, 4.5 years. This marks the length of time from a firearm’s first retail sale to its recovery by law enforcement as a crime gun. Furthermore, Joe Vince, a former Chief of ATF’s Crime Gun Analysis Branch, has noted that crime guns are frequently recovered with fewer than 20 rounds fired.
In October 2007, California became the first state to enact a microstamping law for semiautomatic handguns. Several other states, and the District of Columbia, are now considering microstamping legislation, and microstamping bills have been introduced at the federal level in both the House of Representatives and Senate. Lizotte and Ohar are also promoting the technology’s application for border security (more than 90% of illegal firearms seized in Mexico come from the United States) and counterinsurgency/counterterrorism in war zones.