The Court of Appeals of the State of California, Fifth Appellate District, in National Shooting Sports Foundation, Inc. v. California, Case No. F072310 (Cal. Ct. App.), recently reversed a lower court’s ruling dismissing the NSSF’s petition to enjoin enforcement of California’s requirement that manufacturers “microstamp” all new semiautomatic pistols sold in the state. “Microstamping” generally refers to laser technology that engraves a code on an internal part of a firearm, typically the firing pin or breach face, which then imprints each cartridge case that is discharged from the firearm. California’s Crime Gun Identification Act (“CGIA”), which amended California’s Unsafe Handguns Act, requires that a microscopic array of characters that identify the make, model and serial number of the pistol be etched in two or more places in the firearm that imprint on each cartridge case that is discharged by the firearm. The “CGIA” was signed into law in October 2007, but did not go into effect until the Department of Justice certified that “microstamping” technology was available in May 2013. Handguns that are currently on California’s “safe” handguns roster need not comply with the “microstamping” requirements until they are up for their five-year renewal on the roster. The law has also been challenged by California plaintiffs in federal court in Pena v. Lindley, Case No. 2:09-CV-01185-KJM-CKD (Feb. 25, 2015 E.D. Cal.), as part of a larger Second Amendment challenge to the Unsafe Handguns Act. That case was dismissed on summary judgment and is now before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

California is the first state, but certainly not the last, to enact “microstamping” requirements for new firearms. Washington D.C. has passed a similar law that is currently scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2018. Similar legislation has also been considered in Wisconsin, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. As a spent cartridge case is more likely to be left at the scene of a shooting than the assailant’s firearm, advocates of the technology believe that “microstamping” is an effective technology for tracing firearms used in criminal shootings. “Microstamping” advocates also believe that the technology may deter straw buyers from purchasing firearms for others because the stamp could be used to identify the original purchaser of the firearm. They also claim that the technology may lessen the need for ballistic fingerprinting experts by reducing reliance on current ballistic identification techniques.

“Microstamping” technology, however, also has numerous drawbacks and its effectiveness in reducing crime and apprehending criminals is unproven. Implementation of the California law, for instance, has resulted in no new semiautomatic handguns being added to California’s “safe” handguns roster since 2014 and currently faces numerous legal attacks. Chief among the complaints in California is that the technology to engrave two separate internal parts of a firearm with code that will then imprint on a fired cartridge case in a legible, reliable manner does not yet exist. Both Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger have pulled out of the California firearms market as a result. The California law’s effect of reducing the type of semiautomatic pistols available for sale in California threatens the Second Amendment rights of California residents.

Even putting aside California’s requirement that a fired cartridge be imprinted by two internal parts of a handgun, studies show that microstamping technology is of questionable effectiveness in tracing firearms used in crimes. “Microstamps”, for instance, suffer from varying degrees of degradation over time. Moreover, the “microstamps” do not reliably imprint in a legible form and multiple cartridges cases (which may not be available at a crime scene) are often necessary to piece together a firearm’s code. Further, there is nothing to prevent a criminal from defacing the firearm’s “microstamp” or even simply swapping a “microstamped” firing pin out for one that is not “microstamped.” The composition of the exterior of some ammunition may also degrade or prevent certain cartridges from being “microstamped.” The technology, obviously, would also come at a cost to manufacturers to develop and implement and, consequently, a cost to consumers in the form of increased prices for firearms.

Renzulli Law Firm, LLP is actively monitoring legislation concerning “microstamping” and legal challenges to these laws.