California's gun laws are among the nation's strictest, but a looming decision in a federal lawsuit could effectively ban handguns altogether in the Golden State, according to plaintiffs who want a judge to toss out a state law requiring all new handguns to be equipped with technology that "stamps" each shell casing with a traceable mark.
The problem with the “microstamping” law, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007 but only took effect in 2013, is that it relies on an unworkable technology, according to gun manufacturers and attorneys for the Second Amendment Foundation and Calguns Foundation. If guns without the technology can't be sold in California, and gun manufacturers can't implement the technology, the law is, for practical purposes, a handgun ban that violates the Second Amendment, goes the argument.
“This is about the state trying to eliminate the handgun market,” said Alan Gura, the lead attorney in Pena v. Lindley, filed on behalf of the Second Amendment Foundation and Calguns Foundation against the Chief of the California Department of Justice Bureau of Firearms. “The evidence submitted by the manufacturers shows this is science fiction and there is not a practical way to implement the law.
“This is about the state trying to eliminate the handgun market.”
- Alan Gura, attorney for plaintiffs
“At some point gun sales will cease,” he added.
California Eastern District Judge Kimberly Mueller is considering Gura's request for her to enjoin the state from imposing a ban on the sale of new handguns based on lack of compliance with the microstamping law while the case, first filed in 2009, until the technological challenges are resolved. Although Mueller has not said when she will issue a decision, Second Amendment Foundation officials believe it could come any day.
Since the law took effect in 2013, no manufacturer has made a new firearm that complies with the requirement.Two major manufacturers, Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Co., announced last year they would stop selling new firearms in the California market, and blamed the microstamping law. The technology has been demonstrated, but gunmakers say requirements that each new model, or even modification, must be re-tested for compliance makes the entire scheme unworkable.
The microstamping bill was introduced by the state lawmaker and current Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, who insists the technology is not only workable, it will make it much easier to solve gun crimes.
“When we know who bought the crime gun, that’s a significant lead for law enforcement,” said Feuer co-founder of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence.
If the law were expanded throughout the country, Feuer believes the technology could help solve the approximately 45 percent of gun crimes in the country that go unsolved.
Dr. Dallas Stout, president of the California Brady Chapters, also endorsed the law after pushing for its passage, saying it will “provide law enforcement with an important tool to track down armed criminals and help solve gun crimes.”
Both ballistic identification and microstamping systems help law enforcement investigate gun crimes because cartridge cases are much more likely to be recovered at the scene of a shooting than the gun itself, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence maintained.
However, the theory that the law will actually help solve crimes remains untested. A spokesperson for Long Beach’s Police Forensic Sciences Services Division said the department has no such statistics because there are no firearms that actually use the technology yet. And even law enforcement authorities have wavered on whether it will work: The California Police Chiefs Association, which originally supported the legislation in 2007, changed its position in 2009.
“Publicly available, peer-reviewed studies conducted by independent research organizations conclude that the technology does not function reliably and that criminals can remove the markings easily in mere seconds,” the California Police Chiefs Association said in a letter to then state Attorney General and current Gov. Jerry Brown.
Feuer blames the gun lobby for the change in position, saying it “has engaged in an outrageous, last ditch effort to try and thwart a law broadly supported by law enforcement.”
Without action by Mueller, there will be no way for a California resident to buy a new firearm until the case is ultimately decided, perhaps by the U.S. Supreme Court, said Gene Hoffman, co-founder of Calguns Foundation.
“Any new semi-automatic gun that we want to carry for self defense or purchase as collectors will not be available to us at all,” Hoffman said.
If new guns can't be purchased, older ones that are grandfathered in under the microstamping law will cost more, said John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center. That takes square aim at the Second Amendment rights of the poor, he said.
“The problem is the people who need guns the most and benefit the most from owning gun, poor individuals in high crime areas, are priced out of the market,” Lott said. “Who do they think they are disarming as a result of the law? It is minorities in poor crime areas, not some wealthy guy who can afford to purchase the firearms at a higher cost.”
Malia Zimmerman is an award-winning investigative reporter focusing on crime, homeland security, illegal immigration crime, terrorism and political corruption. Follow her on twitter at @MaliaMZimmerman