Microstamping calls the shots

     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."

     The goal of the NanoMark tests was to rehabilitate microstamping's image by rectifying what NanoMark believed were Beddow's skewed observations. The company tested a Smith & Wesson Model 4006 40-caliber semi-automatic handgun that was outfitted with microstamping technology using ID Dynamics' optimization protocol. This firearm was tested with more than 2,500 rounds, using five different brands of ammunition.

     The company concluded that the optimized S&W 4006 firing-pin impression was exceptionally repeatable and marked the primer of the cartridge with a transfer rate of 100 percent, with all eight digits of the gun's serial number legible 97 percent of the time using optical microscopy and scanning electron microscopy. Even multiple hit primers — a condition that manifests itself during very fast consecutive firing — were still legible by using electron microscopy imaging methods.

     Breech face marks, designed to provide an auxiliary source for forming the code if the firing pin is defaced or replaced, provided further opportunities to compile all eight digits. These marks transferred 96 percent of the time.

     The company reports the tests confirm that a firearm outfitted with microstamping technology is more than capable of producing codes onto cartridges. According to a 2000 study by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, semi-automatic handguns have an average time-to-crime range of 1.6 to 6.4 years, which means these guns are frequently recovered after firing fewer than 500 rounds. The NanoMark test involved five times that volume of cartridges and still enjoyed acceptable transfer rates.

     Interestingly, before the NanoMark tests were performed, several of Beddow's assertions were almost immediately rebutted by his own university president, UC-Davis Chancellor Larry N. Vanderhoef. In a May 15 letter to Feuer, Vanderhoef apologized for complicating rather than elucidating the issue, saying Beddow had conducted his analysis using non-optimized firing pins and vintage firearms that had never been considered for testing because of their model age (which ranged from 10 years to over 50 years) and inconsistent mechanical condition. Beddow tested firing pins from six different brands of semi-automatic handguns, two semi-automatic rifles, and a shotgun.

     The chancellor noted there were other problems with the study. Vanderhoef says Beddow's study had not been peer reviewed, was not commissioned by the state legislature, and drew false conclusions regarding AB 1471, which calls for microstamping of only new models of semi-automatic handguns. Vanderhoef's letter to Feuer came just before AB 1471 passed the Assembly in September.

Black market fears

     Microstamping critics are not impressed. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) says, "AB 1471 fails to recognize the unfortunate reality that mandating the technology for firearms sold each year in the state of California will create an illegal black market for 'non-laser engraved' firearms and further increase illegal, interstate firearm trafficking."

     According to the NSSF, the new law also fails to consider the tens of millions of firearms in circulation that have not been, and cannot now be, micro-laser engraved. There are also far more firearms stolen each year in this country (approximately 500,000, or nearly one every minute), than there are violent crimes committed each year with firearms.

     "It is an unfortunate reality, but criminals modify their behaviors and will always find ways to obtain firearms," says NSSF spokesperson Ted Novin.

     The microstamp is only 15- to 25-microns deep — one micron is 1,000th of a millimeter — and critics say it is easily rubbed off with household tools. There is also concern that active gun hobbyists, who must replace their firing pins frequently, will get caught in a potential logistical nightmare, as well as face additional costs.

     The NSSF speculates the California microstamping law could also affect the cost of guns in markets elsewhere because firearms for commercial, law enforcement and military markets are all manufactured at the same time by the same process at the same plant. Since companies do not have law enforcement-only production lines and do not have California-only production lines, costs would have to be spread across all products in all markets, resulting in significantly higher prices for all products.

     The NSSF believes the price of firearms for all consumers, including municipalities purchasing firearms for law enforcement agencies, will increase dramatically. Some estimates run as high as $50 to $100 per firearm.

     Tulleners, however, estimates that setting up a facility to engrave the firing pins of every handgun sold in California would cost approximately $8 per firing pin the first year, falling to under $2 per firing pin in subsequent years.

Law and no order

     There also may be lurking legal issues with microstamping. Novin says even with microstamping technology laws, like AB 1471, the technology has limited value.

     "As with ballistics imaging, there is a serious chain-of-custody problem that renders any information derived from the technology essentially worthless from an evidentiary point of view," he notes.

     The California National Rifle Association (NRA) Members' Councils reported on its Web site, during the debate on AB 352 (the Assembly's 2006 attempt at a microstamping law), that microstamping could even create false evidence trails. Their fear was that microstamped cartridge cases fired and abandoned at any police or public firing range could be gathered and used to seed crime scenes with false evidence, implicating innocent law enforcement officers and citizens in crimes they had nothing to do with.

     California Assemblyman Paul Koretz, author of AB 352, says the whole idea of microstamping is to give law enforcement a new tool to track both killers and unscrupulous gun dealers.

     "The idea was never that someone would be convicted solely on the basis of the microstamp," said he stresses.

     Douglas Page is a science/technology writer living in Pine Mountain, California. He can be reached at douglaspage@earthlink.net.