Putting a Fingerprint on Every Bullet

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Headline-grabbing tragedies like the shooting in Santa Monica last weekend, or last year's shootings in Newtown, Conn. and Aurora, Colo., are only the most visible evidence of the gun love that ends lives everywhere in the U.S. on a daily basis.

While I don't mean to diminish the impact of Santa Monica, individual gun killings occur frequently and escape national attention. In 2010, according to Center for Disease Control statistics, there were over 31,000 deaths by firearm in the U.S. Of those, 11,000 were homicides. Mass shootings, as horrible as they are, account for less than 1% of that grim tally even in a year like last year, which saw, by the Washington Post's reckoning, 94 deaths in mass shootings. Yet each of those 31,000 deaths is just as significant, in that it represents a real community of family and friends, grieving over a future cut short.

Mass killings with a gun typically involve a shooter who is mentally ill and using a weapon under legal ownership, belonging either to the shooter or a member of his family or a friend. A great deal of conversation is happening now regarding that very specific set of circumstances. Remedies proposed include instituting bans on assault weapons, increasing background checks, more systematic identification and treatment of the mentally ill.

That conversation is important and the solutions proposed need to be weighed on their merits. But none of them would affect the broader category of gun homicides.

That's because because most gun crimes are committed with illegal guns. Those guns are typically acquired through straw buyers and handed off to the actual shooter after the serial number has been scraped off.

In this category, there are concrete measures that can be taken, without making any weapon illegal, to reduce the practice of straw buying and thus the number of gun deaths.

The most obvious is a relatively new technology called "microstamping." This etches a microscopic code on the firing pin of a gun. That code is then imprinted onto each bullet fired, leaving a trace that can lead investigators back to the original purchaser. Advocates say the technology would not affect gun ownership and go a long way to discouraging straw buyers.

Currently, guns come with a serial number etched onto the outside of the gun. Here's a picture of a Stallard 9 mm semiautomatic pistol retrieved by investigators. The photo comes courtesy of the public information officer at a New Jersey office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The serial number here has been obliterated, probably ground off with an electric drill. Easy to do and takes only a few minutes. Once removed, that gun can be sold for cash to anyone. The ATF office assured me that unless the owner does a sloppy job of removing the serial number, it is impossible to trace the history of the weapon.

Microstamping helps solve that problem. Lasers etch the microscopic code onto the firing pin of each gun during the manufacturing process. Then, even in the absence of a retrieved weapon, bullet casings found at a crime scene can lead investigators back to the gun's last legal owner.

Opponents say the technology, invented by an NRA member in the 1990s, is unproven and may be defeated by filing the firing pin. But authorities, notably in California, feel otherwise.

In May, California's Attorney General Kamala Harris enacted a law requiring microstamping on all guns sold in the state. The law had been signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007 but implementation was delayed by challenges from gun rights organizations.

Quoted by the San Francisco Chronicle, Harris said, "The patents have been cleared, which means that this very important technology will help us as law enforcement in identifying and locating people who have illegally used firearms."

The New York State Assembly passed a similar bill yet to be approved by the state Senate. Other states are considering similar measures. A bill containing a federal requirement for microstamping was introduced in Congress in 2008 but died in committee.

Microstamping will add to the manufacturing price, but studies show it could be implemented for under $10 per gun the first year and far less thereafter. Like any technology, too, its effectiveness will likely be improved as implementation and research expand.

Importantly, the technology puts no other limitations on private gun ownership. It is invisible and does not affect the use of a weapon. The most vocal critics have claimed it will push manufacturing out of states where it is required, resulting in an effective ban on guns in those states.

Some smaller makers have withheld the sale of weapons in states that restrict private ownership. Larger manufacturers, like Glock and Smith & Wesson ( SWHC), are unlikely to join them, in particular because of the potential loss in sales to law enforcement.

Obviously microstamping in one state won't help for illegal weapons purchased elsewhere, but it's a start. If more states express interest in this technology, gunmakers might be encouraged to make it a national standard, handing investigators in all states an important new tool while discouraging potential straw buyers.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York City.

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