Getting down to brass tags

If suburban lawmakers want to get serious about helping reduce violent crime in Baltimore — aside from making racially charged observations or fueling public fears — they ought to look at the proposal under review this week by lawmakers in Albany.

In New York, legislators were scheduled to consider a bill to require new handguns be equipped with "microstamp" or "ballistic imprint" technology that allows police to match bullet casings found at crime scenes with the handgun that fired them. The technique involves laser engraving of tiny serial numbers on firing pins and breach face that are imprinted on the casing when the weapon fires.

Police can then use the spent casings to track down the serial number of the gun used in a crime without having to recover the actual weapon. That, in turn, should at least help them identify the gun's original owner — or provide evidence that a weapon used in the commission of one crime was also used in another.

Fans of the relatively new and evolving technology include Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld IIIwho recently told the New York Times that microstamping could "take us from the Stone Age to the jet age in an instant." He and others in law enforcement see microstamping as a valuable investigative tool that would help reinforce more traditional ballistics evidence that has come under increasing attack in the legal system.

But the usual suspects in such matters, gun manufacturers and the National Rifle Association, oppose microstamping because it would add to the cost of a weapon and because it could prove of limited help to police if outlaws find ways to circumvent it — by replacing or filing down firing pins or simply by picking up spent casings.

Advocates say the cost is not all that great — about $12 per weapon — and how easily it might be circumvented is in dispute. Suffice to say that criminals (particularly those in Baltimore's experience) are not necessarily the brilliant masterminds that the NRA would have the public believe.

Admittedly, the technology would only involve new guns, and whether every casing will be stamped with a legible serial number after a gun is fired is not clear. But the fact that the technology is not 100 percent perfect should not bar its use today, particularly when the only real downside is a modest cost, and the benefit could be so great.

This is hardly an imposition on anyone's Second Amendment rights. The New York proposal, for instance, only pertains to semi-automatic handguns, not rifles or revolvers, because they are the preferred weapon of criminals. California has already passed a similar law, but it's been held up over a patent dispute supported by the law's opponents.

There's no reason why Maryland should not be investigating this opportunity as well, particularly considering all the recent interest by legislators like Baltimore County Republican Del. Pat McDonough and Democratic Sen. James Brochin in making the city a safer place. Surely, they would support Mr. Bealefeld or his successor in their fight against city crime rather than kowtow to the NRA.

Sadly, Maryland lawmakers appear to have lost interest in gun control in recent years, no matter how sensible the proposal. A recent report highlighted last month by Mayors Against Illegal Guns is critical of Maryland for not providing sufficient information in criminal background checks. Specifically, the state lags in reporting mental health records, which raises the risk that people with a history of serious mental illnesses will not be prevented from purchasing firearms.

Yet guns remain the weapon of choice in murders by at least a two-to-one margin, and Federal Bureau of Investigation data suggest that no arrests are made in 40 percent of cases nationwide for lack of evidence. A serial number stamped on a casing doesn't necessarily solve a crime, but at least it offers police the means to trace a weapon to its origins.

Why take that tool out of investigators hands? Because of $12? Because gun advocates are "uncomfortable" with traceable casings? Because it won't help with older weapons? The objections just don't pass muster when balanced against the thousands of murders committed across the United States each year and the need to do more to solve them.

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