Sunday, August 08, 2010

Gun Control: About Control, not about Guns!

The Smallest Minority

You may recall that in 2008 I spent a considerable amount of time talking about two proposals to physically trace the origin of a firearm from which a bullet was fired. This has always been presented as an attempt to solve crime.

Essentially, these were various ways in which unique numbers would be 'microstamped' on either the bullet, or the cartridge case. The 'unique numbers' (or other unique identifying characteristics) would all Law Enforcement agencies to identify ... ultimately .. the person who fired the bullet during the commission of a crime.

There have been three methodologies defined. Two of them are new, untested and require that laws be passed at either the State or Federal level; they require that either the ammunition or the firearm used will emboss an unique identifier on the ammunition itself.


The first, and least practical approach, is that each unit of ammunition (a 'box' ... usually 20 rounds for rifle ammunition, typically 50 rounds for pistol ammunition) be pre-stamped during the manufacturing process. When purchasing the ammunition, the buyer must provide incontrovertible identification of name, address, and such demographic information as the individual state may deem advisable. That is linked with the specific encoded number of the individual 'unit' of ammunition. In each box of ammunition, all individual rounds are pre-stamped with a identifying mark, usually a number, and this mark is not present on ANY other unit or box of ammunition.

The intent is that the purchaser of ammunition would be readily identifiable by reading the microstamped identifier on either the bullet or the cartridge case (either or both of which were usually, in the bills of the various states proposing this law required to be encoded).

In a mass-production process, this approach is obviously unsupportable. The waste is incalculable, if even a single round must be rejected during the inspection phase; then all other rounds in that unit must be rejected also, and the necessary paperwork to certify that the number is 'rejected' would be beyond all but the most expensive procedures. The cost ammunition would be enormous, and the cost of governmental oversight would be absurd.

I have discussed this in slightly more detail here, and perhaps elsewhere.


In this scenario, there is no burden upon the ammunition manufacturers to accommodate difficult and absurd requirements to match 20 or 50 (or more) units to a single box of ammunition. Instead, the imposition is on the manufacturers of firearms.

New firearms would be required to emboss upon the breech-face of each firearm the produce an unique identifier, which would be 'related' to the firearm serial number. This would also be entered in a National Database, which includes also the description of the firearm .. type, model, etc. Presumably, upon retail purchase of each firearm the new owner information would also be entered into the same, or a related database.

There are as many objections to this process as to the Encoded Ammunition proposal, not the least is that this de facto constitutes Firearm Registration ... it would be a permanent record.

Of course, the people who propose to provide the technology are as adamant as those who provide Encoded Ammunition that it is reliable, unalterable, and easy to use. And of course both the technology and the claims are untested and unsupported by simple logic.

First, the identifier would only be embossed on the case, not on the bullet. Then consider that the microstamping on the case would only be usable by police if the case was found at the scene of the crime ... which immediately makes it unusable for revolvers (which do not eject a case when fired).

There is no evidence that a 'dirty gun' would impress a clear impression of the identifier on the base of the ejected brass, and depending on the extent and volume of the base of the brass might be dedicated to the manufacturer's headstamp, some rounds of ammunition may be less liable to display the entire identifier than others.

Of course, there is no reason to expect that a gun owner (who may not be the original retail purchaser) will not deface the breech face of the gun to obscure or eliminate the embossed identifier. It would have to be a raised stamping or engraving to make a readable impression on the brass, so it would be easy to remove by a dremel tool, or even a hone.

But it's not necessary to remove the impression by the physical means. The slide on a semi-automatic pistol, for example, is only a 'part'. How difficult would it be to buy a replacement part? The serial number is on the frame: is the Federal Government going to impose serialization requirements on a slide, similar to that already required on a 'firearm' (the frame)? Imagine the expense and bureaucratic burden that would be for a firearm owner?

No, this is no more usable or practical than the "Encoded Ammunition" scenario.

I have discussed this in slightly more detail here, and perhaps elsewhere.


Finally this discussion gets down to the purpose of this article. Existing technology has historically been used to match ammunition components (bullet, case) to the firearm which fired the ammunition round by dint of either the striations on the bullet ... which reveals a profile of the barrel through which it has been fired ... or 'tool marks' on the case.

The bullet striations application is familiar to all of us who watch television. Two bullets are compared ... one from the crime scene, the other from a test round fired by a suspect firearm ... and both the rifling and 'supplemental' marks on the bullet (caused by wear on the barrel) will, supposedly, allow Law Enforcement Ballistic Forensic Examiners to definitively determine that a specific bullet has been fired by a specific firearm.

(More on this in a moment.)

An alternative approach is based on the theory that the cartridge case is similarly marked when a round of ammunition is fired. Usually this involves primer indentation caused by the unique profile of the firing pin, but also considers the mark of the ejector, and such striations on the case due to any unique marks caused by unique characteristics of the chamber which may 'scratch' the surface of the case.

If this last sentence seems carefully composed, that's because it is. The hypothetical marks may be caused by accumulated powder residue left by the firing of previous rounds through the barrel, imperfections or tool-marks imposed upon the chamber during manufacture, or ... well, one is left to one's own imagination as to the chain of events which may create unique identifiers on the cartridge case. It's easy to imagine that this combination of 'marks' might change during repetitive firing, and dependent on too many environmental factors (including cleaning) to be enumerated.

Which brings us to the original article from Mr. Kevin Baker (not "Bacon") in The Smallest Minority article of January 14, 2005.

We wouldn't want you to take our word for it, so this is an excellent time for you to read the entire article "Why Ballistic Fingerprinting Doesn't (and Won't) Work".

Ignoring that the 'ballistic fingerprinting' is dependent on the failure of the firearm to change the components of the firearm (slide, firing pin, barrel), Baker emphasizes three things:
  1. The validity of the approach is flawed because you have to have a comparison round to identify the firearm. The legal approach is to require firearm manufacturers to provide one (or two) sample fired cartridges which will be electronically scanned and entered into a Federal Database.
  2. This sample is taken with a new firearm, one which has either never been fired, or has only been test-fired a very limited number of times. (Contrary to popular belief, new firearms are not typically 'test fired' before being made available for purchase. Some very expensive and exotic firearms are, but this is not the usual practice for most manufacturers.)
  3. After a very limited amount of use, most firearms will 'imprint' upon the fired cartridge a decidedly different variety of scrapes, striations, etc.
But the most IMPORTANT consideration reported by Mr. Baker is that even brand new never-fired guns will imprint differently on different ammunition!

Breach marks, chamber marks, firing-pin indentations .. all are different on different brands of ammunition, different hardness of primers, different loads and bullets which result in different velocities (and, assumedly chamber pressures) will result in different markings.

In actual tests of new firearms, even with the same ammunition from the same manufacturer and from the same lot, tests were unable to match guns which fired the ammunition, even from a very restricted number of test firearms!


Even if you choose not to read Bacon's article (if only to see the citations for his sources, at the end of the article), you should not exit this without reading his ultimate conclusion. I'll make it easy for you; here it is:

UPDATE, 1/19: This is probably the most linked and most viewed piece I've written to date. Thanks to everyone who has commented and pointed readers this way (though I'm surprised I haven't seen a single hate-bomb out of the two thousand or so who've read this.) One commenter over at Chicago Boyz made an observation that I would have included in the body of this piece if it weren't already so long:
I've long since concluded that the gun controlers [sic] don't really expect measures like these to "work", in the sense of lowering crime, or aiding the police. The inconvenience and cost to gun owners is what they're aiming for. In the long run, if they can make gun ownership enough of a hassle, the number of gun owners in the next generation will decline, and perhaps we'll lose enough political clout that they can get the outright ban they really want.

But that's not a motive they can openly admit, and still hope to get the programs enacted.
To which I replied:
Brett Bellmore hit the nail on the head - the purpose is not to build a useful tool for crimefighting, the purpose is to make it more difficult for individuals to aquire [sic] and keep firearms. The effort is, and the gun control groups state this implicitly, to reduce the number of guns, because they ALL blame "the number of guns" in circulation for the level of gun violence we have here.

The British did a yeoman's job of making gun ownership an onerous privilege to exercise, then used the rules under which that privilege is exercised to remove whole classes of firearms...

From the law-abiding subjects. The criminals, however, still have access to pretty much anything they want.

Note this passage from the second Maryland report:
The Vision of the MD-IBIS Program was to have it fully performing in three to five years. This was to include the amassing of some 30,000 database images per year. This projection fell and was embarrassingly overstating. The actual acquisition of cartridge case numbers was about 36% of the estimation. The main reason for this drop-off appears to be from the reduction of handgun sales in Maryland after the passage of the law.
Now, did those sales actually disappear, or did they go black-market? Did this law really reduce the influx of handguns into Maryland by nearly two-thirds, or did it make a whole bunch of Marylanders (choose to become) instant criminals?