• Ammunition Registration Unworkable

    Email Print
    Share

    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.

    Email Print
    Share