The Truth About Microstamping

Shootings suck. That’s a fact that everyone of every political color can agree on. The world would be a much better place if people didn’t shoot at each other and only pieces of paper had to be worried about flying bullets. In the search for a way to uniquely tie an individual to a crime scene, one idea that has been getting some traction (as seen on today’s Boston.com site, which prodded me into finally writing this) is microstamping. So, what exactly is this wonder technology and does it really work? Here’s the truth…

With most firearms in the world, once a round has been fired the firearm kicks it out of the gun and leaves it lying on the floor. Just about every type of gun, from lever action to bolt action to semi-auto pistols, discards the spent casing when it no longer has a use for it. It makes sense — it saves space, decreases weight, and allows for faster reloading. It also means that when someone uses such a firearm in a crime, typically the criminal will leave the spent casings lying on the ground.

Cases, along with the bullets also left behind by the shooter (usually in victims or walls, though), can sometimes tie a firearm to a specific crime scene. The marks left on the bullet by the barrel of the firearm are like a fingerprint, but much more likely to be smudged and deformed when the bullet eventually hits something. Cases also have identifying characteristics, such as the impression the firing pin makes in the primer and the impression the breech face makes on the case head. The only problem with using these features to identify a firearm is that (a) you need an example of a fired case and bullet from the firearm in question to do the comparison and (b) these characteristics can change wildly as parts are replaced or worn down. A bullet fired from a new gun and one fired from that same gun 1,000 rounds later don’t tend to match very well.

So what’s something that never changes and can uniquely identify a firearm even if you’ve never seen it before? A serial number.

In theory it makes perfect sense. If all guns left a serial number on the cases they fired, then spent cases can be tied to firearms and firearms can be traced back to owners. That is, if it works and if it’s reliable.

Unfortunately, as it stands now microstamping isn’t really a viable technology. There are about five major drawbacks and plot holes that need to be addressed before it’s really ready for mandatory use.

Drawback #1: Stamps Wear Out and Disappear

Ever heard the old adage ”the nail that sticks up gets hammered down?” The chamber of a firearm works in a similar manner. As you fire the gun the chamber and associated parts are subjected to immense levels of pressure and friction. This pressure is so great that on my SIG SAUER pistol there’s actually the impression of a 9mm case head worn into my bolt face (to be fair, it’s seen about 5k rounds per year with me and I’m the third owner).

If the pressure and friction of normal operation can do that to a solid and uniform piece of metal, think about what it will do to a set of raised letters. As the Law Enforcement Alliance of America puts it, “…decades of forensic science with firearms clearly demonstrate that marks left [...] by the internal parts of a firearm change dramatically with normal wear.” Even if the stamp is bright and clear on round number 1, what will it look like on round 6,435?

Anywhere you put a stamp in the chamber of a gun it’s easy to wear away or be removed. Stamps on the breech face can be filed off. Stamps on firing pins can be filed off or removed by changing the firing pin (or worn off with normal wear, given the extreme pressures subjected to the firing pin). And stamps on the inside of the chamber will probably be sheared off in a few short rounds due to the friction. There’s no safe place to put it.

Drawback #2: Revolvers and Polite Criminals

Microstamping is a great theory for semi-automatic firearms, but what about revolvers?

Revolvers are the more polite type of firearm. While other guns just spit their spent casings everywhere revolvers retain those casings and keep them with the gun until the shooter wants to reload. So instead of a crime scene littered with finely stamped casings now there’s nothing, unless the criminal is dumb enough to empty the revolver at the crime scene. Then again, criminals are pretty dumb to begin with.

This is actually a pretty large concern, as the ATF notes SSmith & Wesson .38 Special revolvers as the typical firearm of choice for criminals. Then again, the latest report I could find is from 2000.

The point I’m trying to make is that in order for microstamping to be effective, the shells have to be left behind. Whether it’s a revolver, a plastic bag over the gun, or even just a criminal that takes the time to police their brass, it only takes a little bit of effort to deprive the police of the evidence that microstamping would have provided.

Drawback #3: Registered Owner or Shooter?

There have been a couple gigantic lawsuits in the last few years where motion picture companies have been suing everyone who illegally downloaded their movie. The problem with these lawsuits has been that the motion picture companies don’t provide names, they provide IP addresses. An IP address is like your street address — it tells computers on the internet where to send the data you want. IP addresses do not, however, identify the person behind the keyboard requesting the data, or even which specific computer if it’s a home network.

This lack of specificity has led to a number of these monster cases being thrown out or dropped. According to the EFF, an IP address is not enough information to uniquely identify a person.

Sound similar to what we’re discussing? Let’s apply this in context.

Let’s suppose that microstamping works. A criminal uses a microstamping firearm, doesn’t clean up after themselves, and leaves a perfectly impressioned case at a crime scene. In this fantasy world, all the police would have to do is get the ATF to track the serial number back through the FFLs and arrest the guy holding the last form 4473, right? Wrong.

There can be a number of legitimate reasons why the last 4473 form doesn’t have the current owner’s name on it. Private party transfers is the first one that pops into mind (that pesky “gun show loophole”), but the gun could have easily been a gift or willed to someone else as well. There are even bigger illegitimate reasons, such as the gun being stolen or “lost” and then found by a less upstanding member of society.

According to a 1997 study of Federal inmates by the Department of Justice, only 15% of criminals obtained their guns from a retail store. That means only 15% of firearms used by criminals can (in theory, at least) be traced to the criminal themselves on the 4473 form by the ATF. The remaining 85% of guns will trace back to someone else.

(Just FYI, the “Family or friend” category does not mean the gun was legally possessed by the family member or friend in question, and so would not necessarily trace back to them either.)

Long story short, just as the MPAA now understands, a unique ID number isn’t always as unique or as identifiable as you think.

Drawback #4: Salt

This last one is for the more paranoid among us.

It’s a dark and stormy night. Two shadowy figures walk into a dark alleyway. Suddenly, gunshots erupt in the inky blackness sending streaks of light bolting from the darkness. One of the shadowy figures drops to the ground, the other one stands over them with a revolver. Before the shadowy figure leaves they open a bag of spent casings they picked up at the gun range where Joe Citizen, an upstanding member of society, has been legally practicing with his firearm, and sprinkle the casings around the corpse.

The next day, after the police trace the stamped cases back to Joe Citizen’s gun, he’s arrested in front of his family, charged with murder, and perp walked on national television. Joe Citizen’s life is pretty well and truly screwed.

The scenario above is completely plausible. And while the mistake may be eventually realized and an apology issued, in an age where that one picture of you playing beer pong in college can disqualify you from a job I’m pretty sure a Google result with your name and “murder” in the same sentence isn’t good.

Drawback #5: A booming used gun market

Even if microstamping is mandated by law, works like a charm, and always indicates the right shooter, there’s always going to be a used gun available from an era before microstamping. Always.

There are millions of firearms in the United States. Millions. They’re everywhere. Finding and destroying every single one would take decades of police work and billions of dollars. Not gunna happen.

Even after a lengthy campaign against previously legal guns, they will still be available. Let’s take England as a case study. Firearms have been illegal (except for the permitted chosen few) for many decades. And yet, illegal firearms seem to keep popping up in the hands of criminals. No matter how hard the government cracks down, firearms will still be available to the determined criminal.

So what’s the bottom line?

It’s not gunna work. Not right now, at least.

There is an argument to be made about “dumb” criminals failing to remove the microstamp from their firearms, but statistically speaking that wouldn’t matter. Even if the stamp is in place, according to the DoJ 85% of firearms are illegally obtained. That means that there would be no available records to tie the shooter to the gun.

Right now, the only effect that microstamping would have on firearms is raising the price and inconveniencing law abiding citizens. That’s not a “minor” inconvenience either, especially when the possibility of being wrongly accused for a murder is only one lazy range trip away.

I would LOVE a foolproof way to catch criminals. The second you show me one I’ll be the first person championing it. But with this method, it’s just as likely to implicate innocent people, not rugged enough to survive normal wear and tear, easy to defeat, and makes the guns more expensive to manufacture.

In short: it sucks. And that’s not just my professional opinion, that’s a fact.

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About Nick Leghorn

Nick Leghorn is a gun nerd living and working in San Antonio, Texas. In his free time, he's a competition shooter (USPSA, 3-gun and NRA High Power), aspiring pilot, and enjoys mixing statistics and science with firearms. Now on sale: Getting Started with Firearms by yours truly!

21 Responses to The Truth About Microstamping

  1. avatar40&2000 says:

    For about 10 years Maryland has required all new handguns to come with a spent casing from the manufacture. This casing is kept in a casing library by MSP. I know it’s not microstamping but they have a catalog to compare crime casing too. To date not a single crime has been solved using this catalog. Maybe someday.

  2. avatarRalph says:

    This is why all contract hits should be performed with a revolver and frangible ammo.

  3. avatarGabe says:

    One new type of ar-15 i seen over the weekend was one in 5.7, the magzine goes on top and holds 50 rounds in it and the empty shells are being ejected out of the magwell. Somebody brought up a good point, you could take a ar-15 mag and gut it out and put it into the magwell and it well catch all your empty shells. Can you say perfect crime weapon?

    • avatarJames R says:

      Except when they find you because you’re the only guy in the state who actually owns 5.7 :P But cool idea though even just from a practical standpoint of having an unobtrusive way of not having to pick up brass

  4. avatarTodd AF Vet says:

    Microstamping is the law in California, yet has not been implemented because of “issues” with the technology’s owner and their unwillingness to share information. I agree 100% with the post. Bad tech and just another way to make it harder to make guns.

    • avatarAnonymouse says:

      Basically the CA law is microstamping is needed for future guns to go on the roster, but it won’t become a requirement UNTIL the technology is available royalty free. Since there are some basic patents on it and the patent holder won’t license for free, its not gonna happen for a while.

  5. avatarPete says:

    “The point I’m trying to make is that in order for microstamping to be effective, the shells have to be left behind. Whether it’s a revolver, a plastic bag over the gun, or even just a criminal that takes the time to police their brass, it only takes a little bit of effort to deprive the police of the evidence that microstamping would have provided.”

    Not a problem: in the spirit of gun laws everywhere, just pass a law that REQUIRES criminals to leave their used shell casings behind! And another law that prohibits them from visiting shooting ranges used by off-duty law enforcement personnel and collecting a couple handfuls of spent cases to salt the crime scenes! And another law that prohibits the possession and use of files (firing pin modification) and stainless steel chamber brushes! And maybe we could even try a law that prohibits murder! (Oh wait, we have that one already. Wonder why it doesn’t work?)

    • avatarRalph says:

      just pass a law that REQUIRES criminals to leave their used shell casings behind +1

      An excellent idea! I’ll take it up with the two Massachusetts morons who want to regulate knives. Those two schmucks will vote for anything.

  6. avatarJack says:

    Way to subvert this when it’s established: go to ranges where law enforcement practices and collect all brass left behind. Then, spread thousands of rounds in high crime areas. Creates reasonable doubt for all shooting crimes. And law enforcement will be the first to demand repeal of this unworkable law. Start in California. lol.

  7. avatarBraden Lynch says:

    I will have an accidental slip of my nail file while I’m simultaneously cleaning my gun and performing a manicure (or pedicure) that will take care of this issue.

    It’s all about making it so costly and demeaning that some law-abiding citizen, will not buy a firearm. Don’t you see how that directly cuts down on violent crime. No, you don’t? That’s the rationale for the law and our politicians never pass laws that have unintended consequences or have a complete lack of efficacy in addressing a concern.

    Well, my California politicians who voted for this STUPIDITY should be dipped in tar and feathers. I’ll have to look up which BOZOs signed on to this and give them grief.

  8. avatarGeorge says:

    Lets face it, libs don’t care if crooks find a way around all these bS laws. These laws are directly pointed at the common citizen gun owner. The ones the libs fear will use them as they did a couple hundred years ago. These are the honest taxpayer type citizen that dems/libs fear,because they may be christian, because they smell a pack of rats in DC,and are the ones that will fight for freedom,and this country. They could care less about gangs,and common crooks having guns; it’s kind of a birds of the feather,flock together thing. They directly target Joe the hunter/marksman,cause this type will vote conservative most times.

  9. avatarGeorge says:

    Remember back when Hillary was running for the democratic candidate for president? The dems were trying to push a law that would allow felons their right to vote again. Leave it to liberals…as Pelosi said when she took over the house back in the day…you don’t need God you have us…………Oh my goodness;as Shirley Temple once said. Where can a man move to get away from liberal thinking.

  10. avatarFred Havens says:

    HEY GANG,

    How many people have been trained in the U. S. Military to shoot to kill if nessisaty in the past 45 years? Think about that!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. avatarDerek says:

    “…and makes the guns more expensive to manufacture.”

    I suspect that that’s been the primary goal all along.

  12. avatarJoel Stoner says:

    The biggest problem with the system besides the fact of it being so easy to circumvent, is that it would require a registry of firearms and their owners.

  13. avatarJay1987 says:

    You know they maybe making it so hard on us all to get legal guns because legal gun owners at some point contribute to a crook getting a gun whether they steal our gun vault steal our gun out of the dresser or however they get it from us… they are trying to cut the supply line but there is a problem with their logic legal gun owners are not the only show in town there are enough guns from previous thefts and other shady sources out there that the supply isn’t going to dry up anytime this century

  14. avatarOutlawSix says:

    PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE pay attention to the ads you’re running on this website! I am getting constant popups from your site asking me to install “updates to my browser” that lead to some random website. Don’t let this website get a reputation as a malware distributor.

  15. avatarT Jarvis says:

    Interesting article and comments. I hope everyone realizes that the article was written as a paid promo for corporate gun companies. As far as I can tell, the article means we should make no effort to regulate any weapons or try any method to keep any citizen safe from a gun crime. All efforts to label bullets or gun parts are not to be done because these efforts are not 100% reliable. Let me enlighten all of you to the facts. There is nothing 100% reliable about any identification method. All of the above problems quoted by this article are currently possible or being used by criminals and bad guys, so marking the bullet casings will not be any different. But it will help, even if only to solve one crime involving your loved ones. Over 60% of all households in the USA have no gun, and everyone of those wants to be safe from crazy or criminal gun users (not you, of course, but those other you). And if the majority of guns used in crime are stolen or otherwise acquired illegally, those citizens who oppose these efforts are only helping criminal and increasing corporate profits. It is a sad commentary on the mental health of the USA when large groups of citizens are brain washed by the gun industry into complaining about their rights for gun ownership, but refuse to agree that the rest of society has any rights. All responsible gun owners should be happy to support any reasonable effort to solve gun crimes. I propose including gun registrations throughout the entire life of the gun, with ownership transfer papers under all circumstances, and an obligation to report lost or stolen guns. Gun owners reporting stolen or lost guns will be off the hook. All law abiding gun owners have nothing to worry about. All brain washed people and corporate owners are afraid of this option, and any other attempts at reasonable controls, while respecting everybody’s right. Imagine a world in which gun owners are as responsible for their gun and any use or misuse of their gun as they have to be for their automobiles. We would still have people braking the laws for driving, but all law abiding citizens will benefit.

  16. avatarBob says:

    T. Jarvis….. as you said, ” All responsible gun owners should be happy to support any reasonable effort to solve gun crimes”.

    REASONABLE being the key word here. I live in California where this law has now taken hold. Just as everyone thought when this article was written, gun manufacturers are leaving california. S/W is the first, Ruger is the second and there will be more. This law is not reasonable on its face. You fully support that notion with the “even if it solves one crime” theory. While fully understandable, it is not reasonable. This law bans an entire class of guns and is a de-facto run around the 2nd ammendment. There is no reason why it can’t be extended to rifles that use firing pins and by all accounts it will be coming. This is not about safety becase if it were it would extend to revolvers and police weapons, but of course it doesn’t. If there were a REASONABLE way to do something like this I would support it fully. Think about what would happen if politicians wanted to stop drunk driving, all they would have to do it mandate that ignition interlock devices were installed on every new car being sold in California. While is sounds like a great fix, it’s not going to happen because of the problems it would cause and the easy ways around it. Gun owners want to abide by the laws, I certainly do. But we get very upset when people who don’t understand firearms think they know what’s best for the entire population.

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