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State Weighs 2 Bills Requiring Bullet Marking

Times Staff Writer

With a zealot’s enthusiasm, Randy Rossi has been firing bullets into lots of things lately. Car doors, Sheetrock, wood walls, gelatin with the consistency of human bodies.

On the base of each mashed slug is a series of tiny, mostly legible numbers that have been inscribed by a laser. To Rossi, head of Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer’s firearm division, these markings represent a solution for one of law enforcement’s most trying problems: the anonymity of ammunition.

“This is nothing fancy, just simple technology,” he said on a recent day, after proudly showing that the identification numbers on several slugs remained readable after the bullets were fired into a bulletproof vest.

With 45% of the state’s homicides unsolved in 2003, the most recent data available, the California Legislature is moving ahead with two potentially landmark measures that would require that identifying marks be embedded on projectiles from guns.

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One proposal would have all bullets sold in the state marked during manufacture with codes. The other would mandate that guns be equipped with stamping mechanisms that would hammer telling marks onto every cartridge fired. That could allow investigators to link the cartridge to the gun’s purchaser even if they could not find the firearm.

The approaches depart from law enforcement tactics elsewhere in the country, which have focused on creating computer registries of fired bullets. Those allow for investigators to match projectiles from different crimes, linking ones committed with the same weapon.

The issue of marking ammunition has become the most contested law enforcement topic in Sacramento this year. One of the bills has split California’s law enforcement community and infuriated the nation’s ammunition manufacturers, weapons sellers and firearms enthusiasts, including the National Rifle Assn. Several police groups in California are also opposed.

The hyperbolic debate has even ricocheted into Congress. In April, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, warned Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that requiring serial numbers on ammunition would increase the cost of bullets so much that the military would scale back target practice. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also a Republican, is also against the proposal, which he said would hurt manufacturers in his state.

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Nationwide, there were 347,705 crimes committed with firearms in 2003. In California, those included 44,466 robberies and aggravated assaults, and 1,733 murders.

Although handgun serialization has been a required practice for decades, forensic advances in tracking the sale of ammunition -- which is far more likely to be left at a crime scene -- have been limited.

Since 1994, law enforcement agencies have been experimenting with ballistics imaging technology that makes computer pictures of bullets recovered from crime scenes. Those images are compared in hopes of linking crimes in which the same weapon was used.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has established a database with 862,000 images that authorities say have led to 11,300 matches. Maryland and New York have established their own programs but have been criticized for failing to provide enough substantial leads. The first time Maryland’s database contributed to a murder conviction was in April, four years after its creation.

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California lawmakers debated the same strategy in 2000 but decided instead to study it. A 2003 report from Lockyer’s office provided greater caution after concluding that constructing such a large database would be “impractical” and finding that it was often difficult to match images of bullets fired from the same gun.

The ammunition bill, SB 357 -- numbered to correspond with a popular caliber -- was introduced by Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) on Lockyer’s behalf. It has passed the Senate and an initial Assembly panel. It is the one that has drawn the most intense opposition.

For any box of ammunition sold in California, the bill would require manufacturers to engrave each bullet with the same serial number, which would also be affixed to the box. Retailers would record who purchased each box and would provide that information to the state Department of Justice.

Ammunition Coding Systems, a Seattle company that provided demonstration bullets to California police, uses a laser to etch the number, but the bill does not specify what technology manufacturers would have to use.

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Initial testing indicates that the serial numbers almost always survive impact. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department was able to identify serial numbers on 21 of 22 bullets it tested and recovered. The attorney general’s office identified 180 serial numbers on 181 bullets.

The other, less cleverly numbered, bill, AB 352 by Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood), has passed the Assembly and one Senate panel. The bill, sponsored by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, would require that semiautomatic pistols be equipped with technology that could imprint microscopic identifying information on each cartridge case fired from the gun.

NanoMark Technologies of Londonderry, N.H., has patented one technology that uses the firing pin to emboss the identification mark onto the chamber while it is in the breech of the gun. Although Ammunition Coding Systems’ marks can be read with the aid of a regular magnifying glass, NanoMark’s require more powerful imaging equipment used by forensic experts.

It remains unclear what Schwarzenegger will do if either measure makes it to his desk. Last year the governor proved himself unpredictable on gun legislation by banning .50-caliber BMG rifles -- powerful hunting weapons that can penetrate thick surfaces from great distances -- but rejecting a measure requiring ammunition vendors to keep records of all purchasers.

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“Forensic testing of ammunition used in a crime is the most effective way of tracing criminal activity,” Schwarzenegger wrote in that veto message.

Ammunition manufacturers, who together produce 8 billion rounds nationally each year, say Dunn’s legislation would bankrupt them. The industry, which makes $626 million worth of wholesale civilian sales each year -- on top of unknown amounts to law enforcement and the military -- insists that marking each piece will slow their production and substantially drive up the cost of bullets. Some fear that using lasers in factories filled with gunpowder would be unsafe.

“The question is, ‘Can it be done on a mass level?’ and the answer is, ‘No, not without building a new factory,’ ” said Lawrence Keane, general counsel for the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, the industry association.

Makers of coding equipment, which etches and reads serial numbers on hundreds of products, insist that it could be done for a penny or less per bullet.

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Carl Rennard, a consultant from Lincoln, R.I., who owns several coding patents, said the ammunition industry “is really uninformed about the technology available, how unobtrusive it would be to the product line. They’re just being afraid.”

Advocates say the industry has been unwilling to meet with consultants who help integrate such technology into their production lines.

The debate has also incorporated a disagreement on the craftiness of criminals.

Opponents complain that criminals will refit their guns to get rid of firing pins that stamp codes onto cartridges and will shave numbers off bullets, even though that would require them to take the bullet out of its cartridge. More likely, they say, criminals will simply avoid these weapons and buy their wares out of state or use black market items.

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“Criminal street gang members and other perpetrators of crime, who are often under the legal age for buying handguns and ammunition, would have no trouble getting both from sources other than retailers,” Robert Baker, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, wrote in opposition to Dunn’s bill.

Some forensics experts say that is giving too much credit to criminals who often do not bother to use gloves during crimes or take other precautionary measures.

“Yes, there would be ways to get around that, but it’s not an easy thing to do,” said Joe Vince, a former agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who is now a forensics consultant in Frederick, Md. “In L.A. in particular, you have ghetto rounds, which is whatever you have in your pocket.”

Lawrence Kobilinsky, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said serializing ammunition was “probably something that should have been done long ago” but cautioned that its use would be limited so long as the requirement was limited to California.

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“To have one state is well and good, but in order to be effective, it has to be national,” he said.

But backers of the legislation hope that, as with many other California mandates, the state’s market is so large that manufacturers will find it cheaper to adopt the practices for all their wares rather than just for California’s.

Advocates say they do not expect the technology to automatically solve every case but say they believe it would often provide a valuable clue.

“It’s like any other tool, like fingerprints or copying down a license number,” Rossi, the state firearms chief, said. “There are limitations, but it can still be valuable.”

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