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Adventures in the Gun Control Multiverse

Monday, June 26, 2023

Adventures in the Gun Control Multiverse

Gun control legislators often appear to inhabit an alternative universe, one with its own laws of time, science, logic, and common sense. Take, for example, the dogged and delusional adherence to the “science” of firearm microstamping.

The idea behind microstamping is that it would combat crime by providing identifying information about a gun used at a crime scene, a theory disputed by the gun industry and others. For instance, “criminals can and will easily defeat the ‘micro-stamping’ technology by simply filing away or scratching … the surface of the firearm where the laser engraving has been placed.” The microstamping theory, explains an NRA fact sheet, “does not survive real world application.”

Last July, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a package of gun control bills, including A4368. As is the case with the earlier but similarly-inspired New Jersey “smart gun” law, A4368 would force firearm retailers to sell “microstamping-enabled firearms” after the state’s Attorney General investigates the technological feasibility of such firearms and certifies they are commercially available.

The new law defines a “microstamping-enabled firearm” as one containing a component “that will produce a microstamp on at least one location of the expended cartridge case each time the firearm is fired.” The law directs the attorney general to complete, within the 180 days following enactment, “an investigation concerning the “technological viability of microstamping-enabled firearms,” that must include “live-fire testing evidence.” The attorney general must also appoint a “microstamping examiner” responsible for creating a roster of microstamping-enabled firearms that meet the state’s performance standards. As soon as one or more firearms are placed on the roster, the attorney general must certify that such firearms are commercially available.

Once this certification occurs, each licensed retail dealer of firearms in New Jersey must make available for purchase (and continue to keep in inventory) at least one firearm from the roster; “display the firearm in a conspicuous manner that makes it easily visible to customers and distinguishable from traditional firearms;” and post “clear and conspicuous signage” regarding the features of microstamping-enabled firearms that are not offered by traditional firearms. The state police are authorized to conduct inspections of all retail firearm dealers to ensure compliance with the law, with violations punishable by fines and license suspensions. The law also makes it a felony for anyone to remove, damage, alter, or otherwise tamper with a microstamping-enabled firearm to prevent or alter the production of a microstamp. 

An early sign of things not being as they should be is that implementation, even at this initial stage, has already gone awry. News reporter Politico advises that its public records request for the findings of the technological feasibility investigation (due last January under the statutory deadline) resulted in no responsive documents being found. Instead, a statement from Attorney General’s Matt Platkin’s office confirms only that “[w]ork on the microstamping regulations and investigation is proceeding” and “reviewing the viability of the technology… is currently underway.” The relevant findings are expected sometime “this summer.” 

A more informative development comes from a March court ruling. Boland v. Bonta arose out of a Second Amendment-based challenge to California’s “Unsafe Handgun Act,” requiring all new models of handguns sold to have certain features, including “microstamping capability.” In 2013, Kamala Harris, then California Attorney General, certified that the microstamping technology was available absent any patent restrictions, yet since then, no new handgun models have been added to the roster of handguns that may be sold in the state. The plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction enjoining California from enforcing, as unconstitutional, these requirements.

U.S. District Court judge Cormac Carney, who issued the ruling, commented on the extraordinary gap between the actual and the theoretical the case presented. “Although the California Department of Justice certified on May 17, 2013 that the technology used to create the imprint is available to more than one manufacturer unencumbered by any patent restrictions, the technology still was not available… Indeed, to this day, a decade after the requirement took effect, no firearm manufacturer in the world makes a firearm with this capability.”

The evidence before the court included a peer-reviewed study by Michael Beddow, a forensic firearms examiner, who testified that microstamping technology “could not be directly implemented into every make and model of new firearms or semi-automatic handguns without additional research to determine if it would work,” and that microstamping “was not suitable for mass implementation.” A sworn statement from a police officer, the president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, noted that the handgun “rules simply make no sense, from a law enforcement perspective” and dismissed the microstamping provision as “a fool’s errand.” Ironically, the law claims “to ban unsafe handguns, but actually bars newer, improved and safer generations of handguns already on the roster.”

While a preliminary injunction is an “extraordinary and drastic remedy that may only be awarded upon a clear showing that the moving party is entitled to relief,” Judge Carney concluded that the plaintiffs met this standard. Applying the framework in NYSRPA v. Bruen, it was clear that the law “unquestionably infringe[d] on the right to keep and bear arms,” and had no comparable historical analogues to support it. “Historical laws regarding serial numbers, and the historical analogues justifying serial numbers, do not impose anywhere close to the substantial burden on people’s Second Amendment right that the [law’s] microstamping provision does. The microstamping provision requires handguns to have a particular feature that is simply not commercially available or even feasible to implement on a mass scale.”

California’s Attorney General Bonta has appealed the ruling and sought a stay of the preliminary injunction, although a press release from Bonta’s office includes this telling statement: “The motion does not seek to immediately stop the part of the court’s decision enjoining the microstamping requirement.”

Across the country, his New Jersey counterpart describes his own microstamping law as “smart” and “commonsense” and “consistent with the Second Amendment,” and his gun control supporters agree that, “New Jersey is a national leader in supporting this potentially ground-breaking technology and should take the time to make sure its new law is implemented effectively.”

They may have a long wait, if the state’s previous legislated “technological breakthrough” in gun control is any indication. In 2002, New Jersey passed a so-called “smart gun” law, which as initially cast would have compelled the state’s retail gun dealers to switch to exclusively smart-gun inventories within 30 months of a “smart gun” being offered for sale anywhere in America. More than twenty years later, the law is still not operational, with no indication on the horizon that it will be. Or at least here and now; we can’t speak for other places and dimensions in the gun-grabbing multiverse.

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