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August 09, 2010 Policy

Microstamping Technology


American Bar Association

Standing Committee on Gun Violence
Commission on Domestic Violence
National Conference of Federal Trial Judges
Alameda County Bar Association
Beverly Hills Bar Association
Philadelphia Bar Association
Santa Clara Bar Association
Chicago Bar Association
Los Angeles County Bar Association
Boston Bar Association
Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities
Young Lawyers Division


RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges federal, state and territorial governments to enact laws requiring that all newly-manufactured semi-automatic pistols be fitted with microstamping technology which would ensure that when a firearm is fired, an alphanumeric and/or geometric code would be stamped on the cartridge casing by way of the firing pin, breech face or other internal surfaces of the firearm, that would enable law enforcement to identify the serial number of the pistol and hence the first known purchaser of a weapon used in a crime.


I. Introduction

As a firearm is discharged, tool marks on the interior surface of the weapon (unintentional byproducts of the manufacturing process) create markings on the expended cartridge casing. These markings take the form of microscopic scratches and indentations. For close to one hundred years, trained firearms examiners have used these markings to help identify or match a cartridge case with the weapon from which it was discharged. The unintentional markings on an expended cartridge cannot, however, identify a specific firearm unless the firearm has been recovered and a test round has been produced for comparison. This is a significant limitation on the ability of law enforcement to identify a firearm from which a cartridge was fired and to solve crimes involving gun violence.

Intentional firearms microstamping, in contrast, allows guns used in a crime to be identified without the need to recover the gun itself. Microstamping uses the same forces that produce the transfer of unintentional markings to create a unique code that can be extracted from the expended cartridge case by a firearms examiner. The technology uses lasers to make precise, microscopic engravings on the internal mechanisms of a handgun, such as the breech face and firing pin. As the gun is fired, information identifying the make, model and serial number of the gun is stamped onto the cartridge as alphanumeric and geometric codes.

II. Why This Recommendation is Necessary

Microstamping enables law enforcement to identify semi-automatic pistols directly through cartridge casings found at crime scenes, much like a license plate enables law enforcement to identify a car's make, model and VIN number. Since cartridge evidence is much more likely to be recovered at the site of shootings than the gun itself, microstamping enables law enforcement to use the microstamped markings on the cartridge to obtain the serial number and to begin an immediate trace request. As stated by the International Association of Chiefs of Police: "This technology would be used to help law enforcement to identify the first known purchaser of a weapon used in crime, therefore providing leads that would allow for substantial evidentiary information that will help identify, apprehend and arrest criminals."

This technology would also deter federal crimes involving "straw purchases" in which a prohibited person recruits an individual with a clean criminal record to pass a background check and purchase a firearm for that person. "Straw purchasers" would be less likely to act in that capacity if they knew that the gun could be successfully traced back to them after the gun was used in the commission of a crime.

Thus, microstamping would give law enforcement a new investigative tool. In most cases, learning the identity of the original purchaser would not be the end but rather just the first step in an investigation. Evidence of the identity of the original purchaser obtained by use of the microstamps does not mean that the original purchaser should be charged with the crime in the absence of other competent and admissible evidence identifying the original purchaser as the actual perpetrator of or accomplice to the crime. Put another way, before any charge is brought against the original purchaser, additional investigation will have to be conducted to determine at the very least that the weapon which has been identified by use of the microstamp has remained in the possession, custody and/or control of the original purchaser and has not been transferred, legally or illegally, to another person such as, for example, by theft. Further, introduction of microstamping evidence at a criminal or civil trial would require that the proponent of the evidence meet the jurisdiction's prerequisites for the admission of scientific evidence. The Court would rule on the question of admissibility upon the record made by the parties.

Microstamping does not require the creation of any new database of gun owners or ballistic information; it simply improves the usefulness of an existing tracing system by adding more information to that system. Microstamping does not collect any new personal information from gun owners in any way and has no Second Amendment implications whatsoever.

Requiring the microstamping capability would not materially increase the cost of guns. It has been estimated to cost about $6.00 per gun to do the microstamping engraving process.
Further, the inventors of the technology have relinquished the patent rights back so that any manufacturer can use the technology at no cost.

Peer reviewed research has shown that a broad array of pistols outfitted with the microstamping technology has consistently produced extractable markings through thousands of test rounds. Two papers, which were authored by the inventors of the technology, represent the most extensive testing and evaluation of the microstamping technology. These studies were relied on by the Committee. The Committee acknowledges that other studies pre-dated this research.

The patents filed on the existing microstamping technology have expired and as a result it is available for use by manufacturers. Other microstamping technologies that meet the requirements of the Resolution may exist or become available. The ABA is not recommending the adopting of a specific source of microstamping.

III. Enactment in California

On October 13, 2007, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed microstamping legislation into law, mandating the microstamping of all new models of semi- automatic handgun models sold in the state beginning this year. The provision is codified at Penal Code Section 12126(b)(7). The legislation garnered the support of 65 police chiefs and sheriffs across the state.

IV. Enactment in the District of Columbia

On March 31, 2009, an amendment to the statutes of the District of Columbia to provide for microstamping on semi-automatic pistols became law. The requirements for microstamping become effective on January 1, 2011. The provision is codified at D.C. Code § 7-2504.08 and § 7-2505.03.

V. Conclusion

To the extent that persons who commit violent crimes by the use of firearms are detected and prosecuted, gun violence in this country will decrease and our citizens will be that much safer. Microstamping technology will be a material aid to law enforcement in the effort to solve crimes committed by use of guns. It is cost effective and will not impinge on the rights of any gun owners. The technology should be required on all newly- manufactured semi-automatic pistols manufactured in this country.

Respectfully submitted, Honorable Robert B. Collings
Chair, Standing Committee on Gun Violence
August 2010