January 24, 2014

Smith & Wesson to halt California sales of new semi-auto pistols

Firearms manufacturer Smith & Wesson said Thursday it will stop shipping some of its semi-automatic pistols to California rather than comply with a controversial gun law that put new restraints on what can be legally sold in the state.

Firearms manufacturer Smith & Wesson said Thursday it will stop shipping some of its semi-automatic pistols to California rather than comply with a controversial gun law that put new restraints on what can be legally sold in the state.

The company posted the announcement on its website Thursday in reaction to a statute that requires new or redesigned semi-automatic pistols to have a “microstamping” feature that marks bullet casings with a unique code when the gun is fired.

A correctly microstamped casing would tell crime scene investigators the gun involved in a shooting, its first retail purchase point and who purchased it there. Guns purchased for law enforcement officers are exempt from the law.

“Smith & Wesson does not and will not include microstamping in its firearms,” the company said in a press release. “A number of studies have indicated that microstamping is unreliable, serves no safety purpose, is cost prohibitive and, most importantly, is not proven to aid in preventing or solving crimes.”

The statement came just a few days after the CEO of Sturm, Ruger & Co. Inc. said that his company is “being forced out” of the state by the microstamping standard.

The comments by the leaders of the nation’s two largest pistol manufacturers reignited debate over Second Amendment rights vs. public safety in California, a state with some of the toughest gun control laws in the country.

Former California Assemblyman Mike Feuer, who wrote the first-of-its-kind microstamping measure, said Thursday he thinks the companies’ tough talk is directed by the gun lobby, which fears that microstamping will gain traction in other states. He doubts that either company is prepared to hand sales to competitors in the nation’s most populous state.

“The posturing we’re seeing today doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Feuer, who is now the city attorney for Los Angeles. “But today’s posturing doesn’t equal tomorrow’s withdrawal from the gun market.”

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the microstamping bill in 2007, but it wasn’t implemented until May 2013 to give the state time to clear technical and patent hurdles. The American Academy of Pediatrics and dozens of police chiefs supported it. Gun owners, firearms manufacturers and 14 sheriffs opposed it.

So far, a few Smith & Wesson pistol models have been banned from sale in California for failing to comply with the law. Others will soon follow, Smith & Wesson President and CEO James Debney said in the company’s release, since the law requires updated versions of established models to include the microstamp feature.

Firearms companies and gun-rights advocates say the technology can’t be scaled for an industry that produces millions of semi-automatic pistols each year and doesn’t work anyway. Even if it did, they say, criminals could circumvent it by damaging the precise, microscopic markings on the gun’s firing pin and interior that stamp the bullet cartridges.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms manufacturers’ trade group, and the Sporting Arms and Manufacturers’ Institute earlier this month filed a Fresno Superior Court lawsuit to overturn the microstamping mandate, claiming the law “cannot be enforced because it is impossible for a firearm manufacturer to implement microstamping technology” that delivers consistently legible markings on bullet casings.

Debney vowed to “work with” the foundation and the National Rifle Association “to oppose this poorly conceived law which mandates the unproven and unreliable concept of microstamping and makes it impossible for Californians to have access to the best products with the latest innovations.”

Feuer said that he saw the technology tested and at least one company claimed it could etch parts for gun manufacturers for less than $1 per copy.

“It’s outrageous to me that they’re saying the technology isn’t available,” he said. “It is.”

Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said, “Smith & Wesson could do this if they wanted to. They just don’t want to.”

And criminals, he said, generally lack the sophistication to tamper with a gun’s microstamping components.

“People steal cars and don’t change the license plates,” he said.

Practicalities aside, opponents say the law is an unconstitutional gun grab that cuts off Californians’ access to semi-automatic pistols considered legal everywhere else.

“(The law) is functioning as a ban on handguns in common use,” said Brandon Combs, spokesman for the Calguns Foundation, a Roseville-based group that advocates for Second Amendment gun rights. “For California to say what’s done across the entire nation isn’t good enough here doesn’t pass the smell test.”

In 2009, the foundation filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s authority to limit handgun sales based on a list of models approved by the California Department of Justice. Last year it added the state microstamping requirement to the complaint. The case is pending.

Feuer said microstamping is merely a way to help cops catch criminals.

“You’ve heard the gun lobby argue that we need to do a better job enforcing the law,” he said. “That’s why I’m astonished that there’s an effort to thwart this law. It would help enforce the laws we already have more effectively.”

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