See our Microstamping & Ballistic Identification policy summary for a comprehensive discussion of this issue.

Microstamping: In 2007, California became the first jurisdiction in the nation to enact legislation requiring handgun microstamping. Microstamping means equipping a firearm with a microscopic array of characters that can be used to identify the make, model, and serial number of the firearm, that are etched in two or more places on the interior surface or internal working parts of the firearm, and that are transferred by imprinting on each cartridge case when the firearm is fired.1 Microstamping would enable law enforcement to use California’s handgun purchaser database to match a cartridge case found at a crime scene to the individual who purchased the handgun. The technology is a valuable crime-fighting tool because it helps law enforcement solve gun crimes where the actual firearms have not been recovered.

Signed by then-Governor Schwarzenegger, California’s Crime Gun Identification Act of 2007 requires all new models of semiautomatic pistols manufactured for sale in the state to be designed and equipped with microstamping technology. The law stated that it would go into effect as soon as the state Department of Justice (“DOJ”) certified that the technology used to create the imprint is available to more than one manufacturer unencumbered by any patent restrictions.2 DOJ certified that such technology is available unencumbered by any patent restrictions on May 17, 2013.3 However, this requirement has been challenged by the gun lobby in federal court and the outcome of this litigation is still pending. The firearm industry has also functionally exploited the grandfathering clause in the Crime Gun Identification Act by refusing to introduce new models in California markets that incorporate microstamping technology.

DOJ may also approve a method of equal or greater reliability and effectiveness in identifying the specific serial number of a firearm from spent cartridge casings discharged by that firearm to be thereafter required if this new method is also unencumbered by any patent restrictions.4

Ballistics Identification: In 2007, California adopted a law, effective January 1, 2009, authorizing local law enforcement agencies to enter representative samples of fired bullets and cartridge cases collected at crime scenes, from test-fires of firearms recovered at crime scenes, and other firearm information needed to investigate crimes into the U.S. Department of Justice, National Integrated Ballistic Information network (“NIBIN”).5 The law also requires the California DOJ to develop a protocol for law enforcement agencies to submit this information to NIBIN.6

In addition, in 2000, California adopted a law that required the Attorney General to conduct a study evaluating the feasibility and potential benefits of a statewide ballistics identification system.7 The Attorney General’s report, released to the public on January 29, 2003, states that automated ballistics fingerprinting systems are already assisting forensic experts using relatively small databases to compare cartridge cases recovered at crime scenes, and noted that the expansion of such databases to include hundreds of thousands of newly-manufactured firearms may potentially serve as a vital crime-solving tool. The report cautions, however, that under existing technology, adding the large volume of new guns sold in California could overburden the fingerprinting database, while providing limited useful forensic information to criminal investigators. The Attorney General is optimistic that technology will evolve rapidly to overcome these barriers to an effective ballistics fingerprinting system in California, and noted that further studies on the system are underway.8

Notes
  1. Cal. Penal Code § 31910(b)(7). ⤴︎
  2. Cal. Penal Code § 31910(b)(7)(A), 32000. ⤴︎
  3. See Cal. Dept. of Justice, Firearms Bureau, Certification of Microstamping Technology Bureau of Firearms pursuant to Penal Code section 31910, subdivision (b)(7)(A) (May 17, 2013), at http://oag.ca.gov/sites/all/files/agweb/pdfs/firearms/infobuls/2013-BOF-03.pdf. ⤴︎
  4. Cal. Penal Code § 31910(b)(7)(B). ⤴︎
  5. Cal. Penal Code § 11108.10(a). ⤴︎
  6. Cal. Penal Code § 11108.10(b). ⤴︎
  7. Cal. Penal Code § 34350. ⤴︎
  8. California Department of Justice, Feasibility of a California Ballistics Identification System (January 2003), available at: http://oag.ca.gov/sites/all/files/pdfs/firearms/pdf/03-013_report.pdf?. ⤴︎