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Bill would require ID marks on all bullets
Critics call measure impractical; author says it'll aid crime-solving

VenturaCountyStar | June 20, 2005
By Timm Herdt

SACRAMENTO — If state Sen. Joe Dunn has his way, here's an upcoming "CSI" story line:

Bad guy abducts schoolgirl on sidewalk. When bystander tries to intervene, suspect fires shot into the air to scare him off.

Crime scene investigator Gil Grissom calculates angle and velocity of shot, finds spot where bullet landed and retrieves it from the ground. Serial number on bullet leads police to kidnapper.

A serial number on a bullet?

That's the idea behind Dunn's SB357. The controversial bill sponsored by Attorney General Bill Lockyer would make California the first political entity in the world to require that all handgun ammunition sold or owned in the state be stamped with a tiny mark — a string of numbers, a bar code, anything that uniquely identifies the box it came from.

The bill passed the Senate early this month with the minimum votes needed for passage, setting the stage for a summerlong battle over what has become the next frontier in weapons-control legislation.

Dunn says it's high time that handgun ammunition be labeled with the same kind of identifying information that can be found on a yogurt carton, a heart valve, a bottle of aspirin, a camcorder or any number of everyday consumer goods.

Ammunition dealers would be required to log their sales, creating a database that would allow police to track any bullet to the person who bought it.

'It would be a starting point'

"It won't mean that the person who bought the bullet found at the crime scene committed the crime," said Dunn, D-Anaheim, "but it would be a starting point for the investigation."

Gerald Upholt, spokesman for the California Rifle and Pistol Association, responds to such talk with extreme skepticism.

He believes the idea is impractical, costly, intrusive on gun owners and just "isn't going to work."

Upholt said he's a fan of "CSI," but believes that many of the crime-solving leads it develops are not realistic. "The Department of Justice watches too many episodes of that show," he said.

The bill, which is now in the Assembly and will likely next be heard by the Assembly Public Safety Committee this week, has stirred a firestorm of opposition from ammunition manufacturers and firearm enthusiasts.

It has generated feelings so intense the members of a Sacramento shooting club this week informed Lockyer that Department of Justice agents are no longer welcome to train at its shooting range because of the attorney general's support for the bill.

In addition, on behalf of ammunition manufacturers, Congressman Duncan Hunter, R-San Diego, wrote to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warning that if the bill became law it would have such an adverse effect on the industry that it would diminish the nation's ability to provide homeland security.

The Connecticut-based Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute argues the serialization requirement would mean hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment. In a statement, the institute said the proposal "would effectively ban firearms recreation by law-abiding citizens as costs rise from pennies to dollars per cartridge."

In an April letter to Schwarz-enegger, Remington President and CEO Thomas Millner wrote that his company, which produces about 8 billion rounds of ammunition each year, would be forced to completely retool its production processes to meet the mandate of the bill. It "would turn modern assembly lines into early 19th century piecework shops," Millner wrote.

'What's in question is the will'

Lockyer spokesman Nathan Barankin calls such "sky-is-falling" arguments a knee-jerk reaction from an industry that simply wants to protect the status quo.

"This is the type of rudimentary technology that's in place for just about any type of consumer good anybody purchases in the United States," Barankin said. "The feasibility is just not an issue. What's in question is the will."

Dunn noted that many of the arguments the industry continues to make are based on the bill's original intent, which was to require that bullets and cartridges each be marked with matching identifiers. That idea was scrapped as impractical, he said, largely because there was no way to apply it to the reloading industry, which recycles spent casings to create new rounds of ammunition.

Dunn said he is eager to talk with the industry if it wants to discuss other nuts-and-bolts issues involved in implementing the proposed law.

"I'm wide open to reasonable concerns," he said. "If there is a legitimate need to extend deadlines, let's talk. I'm happy to work with concerns that are reasonable and pragmatic."

The bill would require that all handgun ammunition "sold, transferred, manufactured and possessed in public" after July 1, 2007, have identifying markings. Individuals who have stocks of ammunition in their homes for protection, or who have private property on which they shoot at targets could keep old ammunition indefinitely.

Serialized ammunition would have to be used at shooting ranges and would have to be inside any loaded handgun taken off the owner's private property.

Dunn's staff is still working with the California District Attorneys Association and other interested parties to develop regulations dealing with how to treat the existing stock of nonserialized ammunition, how to deal with the transport of old ammunition and other enforcement issues.

The association supports the measure if it can be amended to work out such technical concerns.

Individual law enforcement officials are split on the measure. It is supported by the sheriffs of Los Angeles, Alameda and Sacramento counties and by police chiefs in Fresno, Sacramento and Santa Ana. The sheriffs of Orange and Mendocino counties are opposed.

Unimpressed with the idea

Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks has not taken a formal position, said Undersheriff Craig Husband, but is generally unimpressed with the idea.

"From a practical standpoint, we don't think it would have much of an impact in solving crimes," Husband said. "We believe most criminals don't follow the law when it comes to obtaining firearms and, now, ammunition. ... We don't know that the cost of implementing and enforcing this law would be worth the payoff at the other end."

The idea of devising a means to allow police to trace bullets has appealed to lawmakers and crime investigators for years. The Assembly this month approved a bill, AB352 by Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood, that requires new semiautomatic handguns to have microstamps inside that would implant a distinct marking on each casing as a round is fired.

Upholt said that while both bills concern gun owners, the serialized ammunition bill "is a lot more serious than the microstamping bill."

Impetus for the serialization idea, said Barankin, came from the state Department of Justice's negative findings in a study into the feasibility of ballistic imaging: the idea of test-firing every new handgun, analyzing the markings on the bullet fired from it, and creating a database that would be akin to a collection of handgun fingerprints.

Such a system just wouldn't work, Lockyer concluded. He proposed the serialization idea after he was convinced that, with lasers and other means of microimaging, technology existed to allow manufacturers to label individual bullets at very low cost. Dunn and the attorney general estimate the cost would be about a half-cent per round of ammunition.

Serial numbers could be read

In tests, the Department of Justice fired 200 bullets of different calibers into various targets; 181 rounds were recovered, and on 180 of them the serial numbers could be read with a magnifying glass.

Peter Hamm, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, called the California idea promising. He questions how anyone could reasonably oppose the idea of marking bullets so that police could better investigate gun crimes.

"It boxes the extreme gun enthusiasts a little bit," Hamm said. "What are you afraid of? What's the concern? There's not really a logical reason to be opposed to this."

Upholt of the Rifle and Pistol Association said he is concerned that law-abiding gun owners would inevitably be inconvenienced, or worse, by the law. "If you are the victim of a burglary and your ammo is used in a crime, you become a suspect," he said.

Like other critics, Upholt said the proposed law would have little practical effect. "The whole foundation of the bill is that it depends upon the cooperation of criminals," he said.

Barankin said the on-the-street reality is that most of those who commit gun crimes just aren't very cunning.

"The critics have incredible confidence in the criminal mind," he said. "I would suggest that's misplaced."

He noted that in 2003 there were 1,700 homicides committed with guns in California, only about half of which have been solved.

"In every single one of these crimes, there is bullet evidence of some type," he said. "The attorney general's view is that there are few more important things that can be done to protect public safety than to help solve murders."

 

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