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Chris W. Cox's Political Report, July 2005

Friday, July 1, 2005

POLITICAL REPORT

CHRIS COX, NRA-ILA Executive Director

The gun-ban lobby has gone bankrupt on creativity and is recycling old gun control schemes that have been imposed, repealed and dormant for years, and are now proposed again. In the process, they are proving the old saw that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

I get the same question a lot. NRA members, hunters, and even some journalists I've encountered have asked me why the anti-gun lobby continues to pursue the same tired, worn agenda of restrictions on our rights -- particularly when that agenda has been repeatedly rejected by lawmakers and the public.

I've developed a stock line of advice for these folks: To truly understand our political opposition, you have to accept that they will never quit, and that they will never go away. Don't look for rhyme or reason, just accept these facts as truth, I tell them. And I explain that's why our grassroots strength is so tremendous, because our members understand that no victory, no matter how large, will ever be the last word.

Just as our enemies refuse to quit, so must we redouble our effrots to stop them in their tracks.

Now, it also appears that this maxim applies equally to specific restrictions on our rights. The anti-gun, anti-hunting lobby has gone bankrupt on creativity and is recycling old gun control schemes that have been imposed, repealed, left dormant for years and are now proposed again. In the process, they are proving the old saw that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Longtime hunters will recall that the 1968 Gun Control Act imposed specific record-keeping requirements on the sale of ammunition. During the debate over the McClure/Volkmer package of legislative reforms that eventually passed into law as the 1986 Firearms' Owners Protection Act, the U.S. Treasury Department testified that the ammunition record-keeping requirement was of no use in fighting crime. The record-keeping requirements were lifted as part of the 1986 law, and the net effect was to leave honest hunters with one less hassle on the way to heading afield. Criminals took no notice, continuing to prefer to acquire firearms and ammunition through theft or the black market.

Now, this tired old restriction has received a 21st century makeover with a spiffy new name based in completely untested gee-whiz technology: "Bullet Serialization." Politicians in one of our states are falling over themselves to jump on the bandwagon and mandate bullet serialization for every single round of ammunition sold in their state. Where? I'm betting it won't take you long to guess California, and you'd be correct.

Two bills in the California legislature would mandate bullet serialization for every new round of ammunition sold in the state, while another bill takes a slightly different approach on the concept, proposing instead that firearms be made capable of "microstamping" the case of every cartridge fired with a unique serial number. But in the end, the proposals are just complicated new proposals to mandate the same shopworn concept of ammunition registration.

It's not high-tech, or even low-tech. These are "no-tech" proposals, because the engineering and manufacturing capability these bills would mandate simply doesn't exist. Bullet serialization would require that every round sold in the state be equipped with a serial number laser-engraved on the bottom of the bullet, the inside of the cartridge case, and on the packaging of the ammunition. A unique serial number would be assigned to each box of 50 cartridges, with each round in the box mandated to carry the same number as detailed above. Retail dealers would be required to record the serial number and the identity of the purchaser and to provide these records to a centralized government database.

The assumption is that criminals would kindly leave behind bullets and/or casings when committing crimes with a firearm, and would then politely wait at their duly-recorded residences so they could be apprehended and prosecuted. Murder investigations would become a simple matter of finding a bullet or casing at the crime scene, matching it to the database, then declaring "It was John Smith who killed him, in the library, with cartridge number 11101000405." Just like the old board game Clue.

Enter reality, stage left. Criminals are not that cooperative, nor that stupid. Police groups in the state are on record opposing the bill for obvious reasons. The crime lab technicians known as "Firearm and Toolmark examiners," who can already match bullets and casings to specific firearms, are concerned that years of research and development of scientific matching techniques will go out the window. And the firearm industry is warning that California might just go "ammo free" if the proposal is enacted into law. Criminals seem to be the only group not concerned about the bill since they, of course, will continue to acquire stolen firearms and black market ammunition through any means necessary.

But that hasn't kept California state Attorney General Bill Lockyer from championing the serialization proposal. Lockyer even staged a press conference where he volunteered as spokesman for the industry, asserting that it would cost "one quarter of a cent" per round to engrave the serial numbers. Bill sponsor Senator Dunn chimed in that "the cost is negligible" and that the process would be "easy to implement."

Here's the truth. The three largest makers of ammunition alone produce roughly 15 million cartridges per day. Technical experts estimate that even with new factories and tooling, it would take three weeks to produce what is currently made in one day. The cost of one round of loaded ammunition would rise from pennies to several dollars per cartridge. But all of this is hypothetical, because the companies can't afford to build new factories to accommodate the whims of the California legislature. Even if they could, the technology to laser-engrave numbers on cartridges has not been developed or tested. Current safety standards prohibit any type of spark or flame on a loading line, even camera flashes, because of the obvious dangers of powder ignition. Now, California wants to declare that a high-powered laser must be brought into the process?

In reality, makers of ammunition would simply be forced to cut California off completely. These are not just arcane questions of economics. These are very real issues of national security, because the same companies facing this mandate are now running at full capacity to outfit our troops in the war on terror. In a letter sent to California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) wrote, "The domestic small arms ammunition industry is a critical component of our nation's national security and homeland defense infrastructure. Any attempt by industry members to comply with the proposed requirements would result in a massive slowdown in ammunition production. A massive reduction in production translates into a massive shortage of ammunition."

It's really somewhat ridiculous to even have to debate the merits. Our justice system is based on identifying criminals and prosecuting them, not identifying everyone and everything in case a crime is committed. Why not mandate DNA testing for every Californian, to be kept on file just in case? Don't stop there, why not affix a serial number to every steak knife to prevent stabbings? And a number on every matchstick to prevent arson?

None of these proposals involve real questions of homeland security, nor questions of untested technology, but any politician proposing them would be laughed out of town. But the pols have figured out they can cloak the real issues in silly buzzwords. Summon the press, announce the buzzword, and gloss over the issues the media doesn't understand anyway. The desired result is predictable--splashy media coverage conveying the impression that the politician is "doing something" to fight crime. Even if he himself can't tell you what it is, how it's done, or what it's going to cost.

This is policy-by-postcard at its worst. It is a risk inherent in today's hypercharged news and information cycle. Politicians think they must always be embracing the latest trend or reacting to the latest headline, preferably in a setting that's camera-friendly, or else they won't get the coverage they need to fulfill their political aspirations.

California is a raging cauldron of postcard politics, and gun owners are often the targets. The result is a vicious cycle of outraged gun owners deserting the political process, even moving away, thus making it that much easier for the postcard politicians to win their next election, often to higher office. Remember, our longtime antagonist Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) started her political career as the mayor of San Francisco. Now, that city is planning a referendum that would ban all handguns, and you can bet Senator Feinstein is keenly monitoring the issue.

Hunters who may be tempted to shrug their shoulders over the political antics of the San Francisco elites should take note that the handgun ban ballot question would also "freeze" the ownership of long guns. No subsequent transfers of rifles or shotguns would be permitted in San Francisco if the ban passes into law. Senator Feinstein has incorporated this concept into several of her gun-ban bills, proposing that current owners of banned guns to be banned could keep them but not transfer them to anyone else. And that's how the bad ideas hatched in California migrate back and forth to our nation's capital.

This time, the stakes are too high for all Americans and our armed forces overseas. Ammunition registration is a road that has been traveled but left behind. Just as our enemies refuse to quit, so must we redouble our efforts to stop them in their tracks, even when those tracks are a continent away--because they will inevitably lead to your lawmakers, your community, and eventually your gun safe.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.