Putting a Fingerprint on Every Bullet
While I don't mean to diminish the impact of Santa Monica, individual gun killings occur frequently and escape national attention. In 2010, according to Center for Disease Control statistics, there were over 31,000 deaths by firearm in the U.S. Of those, 11,000 were homicides. Mass shootings, as horrible as they are, account for less than 1% of that grim tally even in a year like last year, which saw, by the Washington Post's reckoning, 94 deaths in mass shootings. Yet each of those 31,000 deaths is just as significant, in that it represents a real community of family and friends, grieving over a future cut short.
Mass killings with a gun typically involve a shooter who is mentally ill and using a weapon under legal ownership, belonging either to the shooter or a member of his family or a friend. A great deal of conversation is happening now regarding that very specific set of circumstances. Remedies proposed include instituting bans on assault weapons, increasing background checks, more systematic identification and treatment of the mentally ill.
That conversation is important and the solutions proposed need to be weighed on their merits. But none of them would affect the broader category of gun homicides.
That's because because most gun crimes are committed with illegal guns. Those guns are typically acquired through straw buyers and handed off to the actual shooter after the serial number has been scraped off.
In this category, there are concrete measures that can be taken, without making any weapon illegal, to reduce the practice of straw buying and thus the number of gun deaths.
The most obvious is a relatively new technology called "microstamping." This etches a microscopic code on the firing pin of a gun. That code is then imprinted onto each bullet fired, leaving a trace that can lead investigators back to the original purchaser. Advocates say the technology would not affect gun ownership and go a long way to discouraging straw buyers.
Currently, guns come with a serial number etched onto the outside of the gun. Here's a picture of a Stallard 9 mm semiautomatic pistol retrieved by investigators. The photo comes courtesy of the public information officer at a New Jersey office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The serial number here has been obliterated, probably ground off with an electric drill. Easy to do and takes only a few minutes. Once removed, that gun can be sold for cash to anyone. The ATF office assured me that unless the owner does a sloppy job of removing the serial number, it is impossible to trace the history of the weapon.