Ammunition Registration Unworkable

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California,
the land of innovative gun-control schemes, is at it again. This
time the focus is on regulating ammunition – preferably out
of existence – within the state.

Democratic
State Senator Joseph Dunn has introduced Senate Bill 357, which
would require that all handgun ammunition sold or taken into California
carry a unique serial number for tracking purposes. At first, the
number was to be engraved on the bottom of each bullet (the projectile
portion of a cartridge) and on the inside of each cartridge casing
(the portion in which the bullet is seated until it is fired). As
of this writing, legislators are considering changing the location
of the engraved serial number to the bottom of the cartridge and
side of each bullet after manufacturers pointed out that enforcers
would have to disassemble each cartridge to determine whether it
complied with the law. The bill would also register ammunition purchasers
and make possession of unserialized ammunition illegal.

Backers
tout the proposed law as – yes, you guessed it – another
crime-control measure, claiming that its purpose is “to give
law enforcement a tool to solve handgun crimes.” Opponents
see it for what it is – a gun-control measure aimed at reducing
handgun ownership in the state.

Proponents
argue that the cost of compliance would be only a half cent per
round. According to the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers
Institute, however, the cost of numbering each cartridge going to
California with a unique identification number would be prohibitive.
It would increase the cost of ammunition from pennies to several
dollars per round, require new production facilities and equipment,
negate the economy of scale ammunition manufacturers depend on to
make their product cost-effective, and require three weeks to produce
what now takes one day.

The
bill’s sponsors reply that the law would apply only to handgun
ammunition and, therefore, should not place too great a burden on
manufacturers. This is deceptive because most ammunition used in
rifles can also be fired from handguns, thereby forcing manufacturers
to number almost all ammunition to avoid possible violations. In
the end, it would make more sense for ammunition manufacturers not
to sell to California dealers than to undergo the expense and time
of complying with the new law for one state. The predictable result:
gun control. After all, if you can’t get ammunition for your
gun, it becomes about as useful as a rock.

There
are several reasons why this law would be ineffective in fighting
crime. Even if the serial number is applied to the casing as well
as the bullet, not all handguns leave casings behind as evidence
at the scene of the crime. Although semi-automatic pistols eject
spent casings, revolvers do not. In a revolver, they are retained
within the cylinder until they are manually removed. A criminal
using a revolver is more likely to leave the scene of a crime expeditiously
than to take precious time to remove and drop the spent casings
there, regardless of whether the ammunition is marked, but especially
because the scene of the crime is no place to linger. But wouldn’t
criminals be apt to reload at the crime scene to fire off more rounds?
Rarely. Most revolvers hold 5 or 6 rounds. According to FBI statistics,
the number of rounds fired by each participant during the average
gunfight is 3.5. Therefore, there is no need to reload at the scene
of the crime and drop spent casings. Besides, most crimes involving
guns don’t result in gunfights; they are generally one-sided
events with one or two rounds fired, again with no need to remove
spent casings and reload the revolver at the crime scene.

Wouldn’t
criminals use the more sophisticated semi-automatic pistols, which
eject spent casings? Not necessarily. Semi-automatics cost more,
require more training to use, and are more apt to jam. Chances are,
the average criminal who uses a handgun will have a small, easily
concealable model such as a snub-nosed (two-inch barrel) revolver.
You can bet if this bill becomes law many criminals who now use
semi-automatic pistols will switch to revolvers, or pick up the
one or two spent casings at the scene of the crime, time permitting.

Even
if casings or bullets are left at the scene, how do you know who
fired them? The original purchaser may have sold, given, or otherwise
disposed of the ammunition, only for it to fall into the hands of
criminals somewhere down the line. Go to any shooting range, for
example. The place is littered with spent casings. If only marked
ammunition is sold in California, don’t be surprised if a lot
of these spent casings end up in the hands of criminals who will
drop them at crime scenes to mislead investigators. Also expect
registered ammunition to become high on the list of stolen items.
Then again, an enterprising crook could always purchase unmarked
ammunition out of state and smuggle it into California.

Another
way to circumvent the proposed law would be to use reloading equipment
to make unmarked ammunition. There are literally millions of unmarked
bullets and reloadable casings on the market, and thousands of people
who do their own reloading. Who knows how long it would take to
consume what’s already available, to say nothing of what would
be brought into the state clandestinely after the passage of such
a law? Disassembling marked rounds and reassembling them as unmarked
is always an option, though hardly necessary, because of the other
options mentioned above.

No
one is even sure investigators would be able to read the engraved
serial numbers on spent bullets and casings, given the pressures
and deformation they undergo when they are fired and strike targets
of various hardness.

In
addition, the bill makes no exception for cartridges going to law
enforcers and the military within California, making ammunition
to these entities either prohibitively expensive or unattainable.

In
1986, Congress repealed the federal law regulating ammunition because
it had proved unworkable, time consuming, and unproductive in solving
crimes.

The
California legislators supporting this bill are not unintelligent
or nave. They are well aware of the bill’s drawbacks as a
crime-fighting tool regardless of where they ultimately decide to
place the serial number. Like the now-discredited ballistic-fingerprinting
scheme, ammunition serial-numbering will prove another failed attempt
at crime control, and may even lead to increased crime. However,
it will accomplish the end for which it is intended – more
gun control.

September
10, 2005

Benedict
LaRosa [send him mail]
is a historian and writer with undergraduate and graduate degrees
in history from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Duke University,
respectively.

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