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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Enact Law in California to Match Guns to Owners

October 19, 2002|Craig Smith | Craig R. Smith is president of the Freedom of Expression Foundation and a professor of communication studies at Cal State Long Beach. He is active in state gun control efforts.

The gun-control idea being talked about these days in Washington--creating a national registry of the unique marks that guns make on bullets when they are fired--was proposed in California a few years ago and in a perfect political world would be law today. It still could become law if enough people demanded it.

The idea is simple. Every gun bears a serial number. And every handgun sale is registered with law enforcement authorities. Since every gun is test-fired by the manufacturer before it is put on the market, there is a bullet available that holds the unique barrel markings of that particular gun.

If manufacturers were required to make one bullet from each gun they produced available to law enforcement, they could digitize the unique barrel markings of each gun and keep them on file along with the serial number of the gun and the name and address of the buyer when the gun was purchased.

To make the law truly effective, existing handguns should be brought to a local facility, test-fired and registered. Then officials would have a new and extremely efficient way of putting the bullet from the crime scene together with the gun that was used for the crime and the name and address of an owner.

I proposed legislation to get this process started in California a few years ago. A bill, AB 1717, sponsored by then-Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), became law in 2000, calling for a feasibility study that could lead to a "gun fingerprinting" requirement. A similar proposal went nowhere in Congress, and the California law, mild as it was, has been ignored.

Until a feasibility study is completed, no manufacturer could be required to submit gun "fingerprints" to the state Department of Justice. The study was due Jan. 1 but has yet to see the light of day despite testimony from myself and others, including computer experts, police chiefs and the FBI, all of whom endorsed the workability of the proposal. Citizens ought to be asking Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer what happened to the study.

The sniper attacks in Maryland and Virginia aside, in California alone in 1998 there were 1,315 handgun homicides, about four a day. These handgun homicides constituted more than 60% of all homicides in the state, up from 53% in 1989.

Most Californians want to extend federal background checks to gun shows, would require trigger locks and would ban the sale of guns on the Internet, according to polls.

Ballistic identification of handguns would significantly reduce violence in our society. Even if it were law only in California, a properly worded provision could require out-of-state sales of guns to California residents to be reported to the state. Buyers who purchased guns outside the state would provide barrel markings to law enforcement agencies within five days of purchase. A handgun fingerprinting law also would deter the use of "straw purchasers" who buy guns for ineligible people, such as convicted felons.

Each day of delay means innocent people killed by guns that could be far more easily traced.

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