Microstamping calls the shots

A revolutionary gun indentification technology finds favor and foes

     A 14-year-old boy and his 18-year-old brother are shot and killed in a mini-mart down the street from their home. Police find four shell casings in the parking lot, but no leads.

     A man driving home from work is summoned to the side of the road by a woman apparently needing help. After he stops, he discovers the trap. Two men attempt to rob him. When he runs, they shoot him. He dies. Three shell casings are found, but no leads.

     These incidents are neither hypothetical nor isolated. And it is unlikely the killers will ever be apprehended. No arrests are ever made in 45 percent of homicides in California, leaving criminals to roam free, to put other citizens and police at risk.

     California lawmakers have had enough. On October 13, 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law Assembly Bill 1471 (AB 1471). The legislation, authored by California Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), implements revolutionary microstamping technology in California, making it the first state in the nation to mandate its use. The bill requires that all semi-automatic handguns purchased in California, beginning in 2010, have the ability to imprint identifying information on cartridges fired by the weapon — turning spent cartridges into potential evidence in civil and criminal cases.

Next-generation ballistics

     The fledgling microstamping technology, considered by some the next generation in ballistics information, is a relatively recent development that utilizes lasers to make distinct microscopic engravings on the breech face and firing pin of a gun. As the gun is fired, the weapon's serial number is stamped onto the cartridge, giving police some chance of determining from which weapon the shell was fired. The data can be imprinted on casings in two different locations to maximize law enforcement's ability to trace the weapon used in a crime. Police would not need to recover the crime weapon itself.

     Microstamping differs from conventional ballistic "fingerprinting," which results from extreme pressures present in the chamber of a firearm during firing that transfer any markings present in the chamber to the cartridge. Forensic ballistic experts have long used this peculiarity to associate a cartridge case with the firearm that fired it.

     In the microstamping method most commonly proposed, microstamping would use microscopic engravings on the firing pin to record make, model and serial number data on the cartridge primer — useful when trying to match a gun to casings found at the crime scene. The technique marks the replaceable primer rather than the reusable case, since each time a case is reloaded the new primer supplies a fresh writing surface upon which the data can be imprinted.

     "The technology should be enacted," notes author Britt Minshall. "I see it as an excellent method to help law enforcement connect victims to killers."

     Minshall, a former U.S. Deputy Marshall and Interpol agent, says this technology is totally non-intrusive and fundamentally useless unless a registered shell ends up next to a dead body.

     Microstamping technology, invented and patented by Todd Lizotte and presently owned by a company he founded called NanoMark, a division of ID Dynamics of Seattle, Washington, recently completed a series of tests of the microstamping process that the company says validates the new technology.

Feasible but flawed

     The NanoMark tests were conducted in response to a May 3 University of California (UC)-Davis study in which researcher Michael Beddow concluded that microstamping is "feasible, but flawed." Beddow, a graduate student, performed the study as a master's thesis under Fred Tulleners, director of the forensics program at UC-Davis. Tulleners was formerly director of the California Department of Justice crime lab in Sacramento, as well as the Sacramento and Santa Rosa county crime labs. A university press release covering the study stated that microstamping "does not work well for all guns and ammunition tested" and required "more testing to determine the costs and feasibility of a statewide program."

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