Thursday, January 31, 2008

Encoded Ammunition: Questions

A comment on my last post (Encoded Ammunition: Mississippi) presented some very good questions about the actual effect and enforcement of the laws, if and when they are enacted. Because the implications are so complex I chose to respond as a separate article; there is too much material here to fit within the format of a comment.

All of the bills which have been reviewed here were proposed in the month of January, 2008. They are very short and simplistic. In my personal opinion, none of the bills proposed for Illinois, Indiana and especially Mississippi are fit to become law because they are flawed. The questions in this comment illustrate the unaddressed problems.

Note also that the process of providing an 'unique' serial number to identify the owner of the bullet (or loaded ammunition) has also been called "microstamping" and "serialization". We'll use the term "encoded" or "encoding" consistently in this discussion.

Here's the comment:

One question about this law. What about people who reload their own ammo? Will this law make reloading totally illegal?

Second question is enforcement. If the neighboring state does not require microstamping, what is to prevent a person from going there to buy the ammo they use for target practice? I can't believe the range is going to have to inspect each box or each cartridge to insure its a state legal round.

On constitutional grounds, I think the banning of ammo not microstamped after 2010 (for MS) would be thrown out by the courts because the government is taking property without compensation.

I hope MS citizens will convince their legislature to cancel the bill or the governor will veto the bill.


Question #1 - Reloading:
Andrew, all of the bills seem to have many clauses in common, almost as if they are cut and pasted from a template. One of these (and I'll use the Mississippi version as an exemplar, where appropriate), is that after a certain date it will be unlawful to possess ammunition which has not been 'encoded'.
Section I (2) (b) No later than January 1, 2010, all noncoded [sic] ammunition, whether owned by private citizens or retail outlets, must be disposed.

Before residents in states where this bill may be enacted are required to NOT possess 'noncoded' ammunition, it logically follows that only 'encoded' bullets can be used when reloading ammunition.

There are no provision for the manufacture and retail sale of encoded bullets.

If a bullet manufacturer would be willing to sell bulk bullets which have been encoded, it's not clear whether this will be permitted by the state. Certainly, the bullets would be significantly more expensive than those which are not encoded.

At this time, only one company has stated that they are able to micro-engrave ('encode') serial numbers on bullets. That process has not yet been proven to be reliable in practice. Whether or not it is possible ... it is (or may be) law. Manufacturers would be required to either license the process through this company and encode the bullets themselves, or ship completed bullets to that company to perform the process. Since there is unlikely to be a plethora of vendors who can/will undertake this process, it's obvious that the cost will be all the market will bear. It's problematic whether the ammunition reloaded using much-more-expensive bullets will be competitive with manufactured ammunition. Certainly it will be difficult to justify hand-loading your own ammunition, when this cost is added to whatever financial value you place on your own time at the loading bench.

But even if it turns out to be cheaper to buy manufactured ammunition than to reload your own, it may be that the ammunition you BUY is not suitable to the application for which you now reload your ammunition.

Bench-rest shooters often reload because they have better control over the manufacturing process. In USPSA, we often reload because the manufactures are unable or unwilling to reload for the niche market we represent. For example, the 9mm Major ammunition will (I predict) NEVER be produced commercially, because of the liability issues incumbent in case 'competition 9mm Major' ammunition is used in a pistol which is not designed to handle this much more powerful load. Consider also .40 S&W and .38 super, which may be available but not in the powerful load which is needed to meet USPSA 'Power' requirements.

In short, it MAY be possible that you can reload legally in these states. The cost of reloading, however, is more likely to cause you to shed a tear or two as you relegate your Open or Limited pistol, or your bench-rest rifle (remember, the term 'Assault Rifle' has not been defined), or your 3-gun rifle, to the gun safe where it can only rust into obscurity.

Question #2 - Enforcement:
How are these laws to be enforced? I can't think of any way in which a state may systematically check ammunition, unless the state is willing to bankrupt itself by either creating a Bureau of Bullet Enforcement or taking police away from their mission of preventing Real Crime.

On the other hand, if The State is so inclined there is nothing in the laws which prevent any such measures, even if the effort result in an de facto Police State. It's possible that, for the first few years, The State may run occasional 'inspections' at shooting ranges. The agents of The State can run unannounced, impromptu inspection which require shooters found there to submit their ammunition to inspection. They can pull bullets from loaded ammunition to confirm that they have been encoded. It wouldn't take a lot of public prosecutions to convince shooters that it's just too expensive to be caught with 'noncoded' bullets.

How expensive?

Looking again at the Mississippi laws, it's possible that it will result in a $1,000 fine. However, it's not beyond the realm of possibility to suppose that the state will define you as a 'manufacturer'. First offense: $1,000; Second offense: $5,000; Third offense: $10,000.

Remember, if you have EVER bought ammunition in these states -- they have your name, they have your driver's license number, they have your date of birth, they (MS) have "... All other information prescribed by the Department of Public Safety."

The "Department of Public Safety" (or whatever agency) can ask you to identify yourself. If your name is not associated with entries in their database as someone who bought ammunition in 'that' caliber from 'that' manufacturer, or if your ammunition shows signs of wear (scuffed headstamp, full finish to the brass, etc.) you can be sure that they will single YOU out for an inspection.

Again ... is it worth a $10,000 fine to risk being busted for 'noncoded ammunition'?

Question #3 - "Taking Property Without Compensation":
The State: "Who, me? I didn't take your property. I just said it's not legal for you to have 'noncoded ammunition'. What you do with it is your business. For all I know, you never had any. Or, you sold it to your cousin in Texas (which state is unlikely to every pass such a warped law) at a fat profit. No? Well, that's not my business. Next question?"

I agree with you, of course, that this is de facto confiscation. However, this is de jure a statement of legality. Any state which would pass this law would have no problem defeating any civil suit. Can you say: "My lawyer is better than your lawyer"?

I thought so.

This is a piece of exquisite legislation ... if you are a legislator who is more interested in imposing a "Brave New World" society using "Catch-22" legislation.

Think it can't happen to you?

One word:


Think it can't happen to you because ... Hey! ... you live in a strong Republican state?

Three words: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Three more words: Barack Hussein Obama.

Not to mention John McCain (Arnie, who signed the Microstamping bill in California, endorsed McCain) and Mitt Romney.

That's right. If these bills pass the sniff-test in Indiana, Illinois and Mississippi, there's no reason to expect that similar laws won't be enacted by the Federal Government.

At this time, it doesn't matter WHO is elected president. There are no electable presidential candidates with a strong 2nd Amendment position.

The answer to all of your questions, Andrew, is that we need to establish clear communications with our state and federal legislators.

We can only hope that our brothers in these states step HARD on these very very bad bills, before they set a precedent. Don't expect the NRA to drive the protests; this isn't even on their horizon.
UPDATE: February 3, 2008:
In case I neglected to mention it (as I am certain), Maryland introduced a similar bill.

UPDATE: February 5, 2008:

Rivrdog presents a supporting view, although I don't completely agree with all of his statements.

I think that the majority of these bills will dwindle into obscurity, because they are so obviously ill-conceived and badly phrased. The text is full of logical fallacies and potential for uncontrolled governmental abuse, no responsible legislature would allow them to advance 'out of committee'.

Yet I recognize that the politicians who would sponsor such obviously fraudulent legislation have friends who are equally disprespecting of the rights of their constituents, and there is no logical reason to expect that men of ill-faith will not prevail.

Still, I do not expect that the result will be tantamount to war ... evil, demeaning, en turbulent civil war as Rivrdog suggests. On the other hand, I can see no reason why reasonable men who love their country and the freedoms it represents might not conceivably react dramatically against shameless politicians who introduce legislation, obviously designed (if not intended) to undermine the security and freedoms of our country.

In another context, I have rethought the idea that reloading may become fiscally unthinkable. The basis of this is that the idea of reloading ammunition is based upon quantity, and the amelioration of responsibility for encoding bullets in 20- or 50-round lots.

Obviously, it becomes much more profitable for the manufacturer to sell bullets in 1,000 or 4,000 round lots of 'reloading components' than to sell bullets in 50-round lots, which must become a component of small-quantity loaded ammunition. Any unit (of 20-round or 50-round lots) of loaded ammunition is subject to inspection for quality control purposes. If a single round of ammunition fails to pass the quality control inspection, the entire lot must be disposed of. Not only are material and manufacturing costs lost but the paperwork required to prove that a 'lost lot' was indeed disposed of according to (yet to be announced) must necessarily be as burdensome to the manufacturer as are incidental expenses.

However, in large quantities, if individual components of a large lot of bullets are discarded during the manufacturing process, there is little overhead involved to undermine the profit motive which necessarily drives the manufacturing process. A rebate might be required if a significant number of bullets are rejected, but that is well within the acceptable margin for error. After all, bullets in bulk are sold by the pound, and in an order of 4,000 rounds of 115 grain bullets (for example), a few missing units are not an impediment to commerce.

I suspect that, rather than completely undermining the "Hand-Loading Community", this kind of law might rather support it. It would keep the incidental cost of dross to a minimum, and thus reward the individual reloader.

Reloading your own ammunition may still, in retrospect, turn out to be more cost-effective than buying completed ammunition. Just as it is today, except that the overall cost of adhering to these egregious rules will certainly raise the cost of professionally loaded ammunition above the budgetary horizon of the casual plinker.

Of course, even if you 'roll your own', the cost of ammunition under these laws will be greater than today. We're not saying that this is a supportable concept; we're just saying that buying in bulk may still be an acceptable way to support you shooting predilection.

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