SACRAMENTO — California regulators have approved far fewer semi-automatic pistols for sale in the wake of a state law that required new safety devices in 2006 and 2007.
Now, with a new bullet-stamping law scheduled to take effect in 2010, the gun industry predicts it will introduce even fewer new models in California rather than install a device necessary to trace individual casings to a statewide database.
"California will become like Cuba with cars," said Lawrence Keane, senior counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the gun industry. "You will only be able to get very old models of guns."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 1471 in 2007 to much fanfare from gun-control advocates and Democratic lawmakers.
Beginning Jan. 1, the law requires that new semi-automatic handguns in California include an innovative firing pin that stamps microscopic characters onto cartridge cases. It was intended to ensure that every bullet casing at a crime scene has a license number on it, traceable to a statewide gun database.
Whether that ever happens, though, depends on a few hurdles, not the least of which is how gun manufacturers respond.
The law is on hold as state officials work out regulations governing how new guns will be approved. In addition, the inventor of the microstamping technology must free up patent restrictions for the law to take effect. That's expected early in 2010.
The law then applies only to new models of semi-automatic pistols approved for sale in California, and those numbers already are falling because of the state's last effort to boost gun safety.
The Department of Justice's Bureau of Firearms is charged with approving weapons for sale in California each year. From 2002 to 2006, the bureau approved 72 new semi-automatic pistols on average each year.
In 2007, a law took full effect mandating that new center-fire semi-automatic pistols include both a mechanism that prevents firing when the magazine is removed, as well as an indicator showing when a live round is in the gun chamber. Rim-fire semi-automatics must have the magazine disconnect device.
In three years, the Bureau of Firearms has approved only nine new semi-automatic weapons, including only one in 2008.
That hasn't slowed gun purchases in the state; Californians bought 208,312 handguns in 2008, more than in any of the previous seven years, according to the Department of Justice.
But gun enthusiasts in California are frustrated that they have less access to new models sold elsewhere, said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California.
"What's being sold are guns that really were designed four or five years ago," he said. "Gun owners are reading all the publications, watching the TV programs with the latest designs and equipment features, and they're fairy tales to Californians."
Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said manufacturers should comply with new requirements rather than avoid them. He compared the new requirements with safety measures put on other products such as ladders or cars.
"This is a question of whether the industry wants to help with the tracking and safety of guns in California," Horwitz said. "We've known for a long time that these technologies are available. If they choose not to do it, it shows they are just not good corporate actors."
Even if gun makers introduce new pistols that include all of the requisite new features, those models will make up a small fraction of guns used in California.
Still, backers see AB 1471 as a first step toward making the technology an integral part of future guns sold in California and the United States. They hope California's lead will encourage other states and Congress to approve a similar requirement, forcing manufacturers to adopt microstamping in the future.
"It's going to make a major dent over time," said Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, author of AB 1471. "When the bill was introduced, opponents said it wasn't going to solve all gun crimes because existing guns won't have microstamping. That's true. But it's an important beginning in addressing how we can change gun crime and make law enforcement more effective."
The technology involves placing a unique alphanumeric code on a firing pin or other internal device that leaves an imprint on a bullet casing once fired. AB 1471 requires that guns stamp a mark in two locations.
Dozens of police chiefs, the American Academy of Pediatrics and large cities backed AB 1471. Gun owners, manufacturers and 14 sheriffs opposed it.
Manufacturers say the microstamping technology is unproven and would add hundreds of dollars in new production costs to guns, charges that Feuer and other advocates dispute.
Co-inventor Todd Lizotte, a New Hampshire engineer, said he plans to free his patents from all restrictions in early 2010. He suggested that lawyers for the gun industry are using patent restrictions as a way to block the law.
"Let me put it to you this way. Lawyers are paid to find all possible methods in which this could be encumbered," Lizotte said.
Lizotte, a self-described conservative gun owner, said he created the technology partly to give the military a way of tracking firearms. He also wanted to give law enforcement a tool to defeat criminals whose behavior maligns law-abiding gun owners.
"Ninety-nine percent of us who own firearms don't commit felonies," he said. "It's that small percentage that compromises our Second Amendment rights."
A 2007 University of California, Davis, study tested microstamping techniques and determined the technology was promising but inconsistent. The study found that firing pins wore down at different rates, with alphanumeric codes faring better than bar codes or dot codes. The study estimated that adding alphanumeric codes would cost $7 to $8 per firing pin in the first year.
Manufacturers saw the research as supportive of their position that the technology is not ready for use. Keane said a thorough federal study should occur before implementation.
Lizotte said the UCD study relied on old firing pins that were "nonoptimized" for the weapons in which they were used. He said the results were valid but that he arrived at a different conclusion. He believes that detectives can use multiple casings to get a reasonable lead even if some of the codes are not complete.