Numbering the Bullets — and Backdoor Gun Control

In the Spring of 2008, some Tennessee lawmakers were pushing a bill (HB 3245/SB 3395) that would require all bullets sold in the state to be laser-engraved with a unique serial number. Tennessee is one of several states in which this scheme was  floated. Such initiatives will probably resurface, like a recurring infection, after the first of the year.

I’m sure that the legislative sponsors sincerely believe that the technology to do this exists, that it is “relatively” reliable and inexpensive, that it won’t impose an undue burden on legal gun owners, and that it will result in solving more firearm crimes.

Most are also sincere (one hopes) in the belief that this bullet ID database will not be used as a back-door method of identifying legal handgun owners, in order to make the confiscation of their handguns at a later date more convenient. For a government that no longer trusts its citizens with the right of self defense by handgun, this is a logical way to go.  Most legislators, that is. Unfortunately, there may be some who eagerly await such a confiscation move, and who hope that an ammunition database will make it easier.

As to the technology, please allow an Information Technology administrator and firearms enthusiast to express some skepticism. Yes, it is certainly possible to laser-engrave a very large amount of information onto a very small surface area. One only has to look at a photo taken through an electron microscope of an integrated circuit “chip,” showing the circuit paths etched by a laser. The individual conductive paths make a human hair look like a giant redwood, by comparison.

However, integrated circuits are not fired under tremendous heat and pressure from the breech of a firearm, forced down the barrel of that firearm at 500 to 1000 miles per hour, and distorted or even shattered on impact. Have the bill’s sponsors seen objective studies that show how much of that etched code is still readable after the short, stressful life of a fired bullet? Or, are they taking the word of the measure’s proponents?

Then there’s the challenge of storing and recovering those codes from a government database. By some estimates, 10 billion rounds (that’s ten times one thousand times one million) of the more common handgun ammunition types are manufactured in the United States alone, every year. Even if, as some of the “ammo coding” proponents suggest, the code would “only” narrow the field to one box of twenty to fifty rounds of ammunition, we are still talking about generating, etching, and keeping accurate track of something like half a billion (that’s five hundred times one million) unique codes — each year. And each year, add another half a billion.

Ammunition has a shelf life measured in years, or even decades, if properly stored. So, a bullet coded one day may not be fired until ten, or twenty years later. Am I supposed to believe that a government that can’t even keep track of ten or twenty million illegal aliens (We don’t know how many, do we?), or the illegal use of a 9-digit Social Security number, will be able to track one, unique “ammo code” code out of five billion, back ten years, to the manufacturer, seller and, ultimately, to the buyer? Sorry. I don’t. Even if the information is entered accurately (and it often isn’t, judging from other forms of government record-keeping), it can be lost, altered or destroyed.

Does anyone know what it will cost to maintain the database — personnel, hardware, software — that houses this information? Do the legislative sponsors have any realistic estimates? Or, are they listening to the moist whispers in their ears from the manufacturers of laser engravers, database administration programs and computer servers, who will be scrambling for the contracts to accumulate and maintain this enormous, and always-growing mountain of data?

Does anyone dispute that the burden of this process on the ammunition manufacturers will drive up the price of their products? One ‘Ammo Code” proponent’s Website ( estimates that a laser engraver will cost “only” $300,000 to $500,000. Of course, an engraver would be needed at the end of each production line. If a manufacturer runs batches of the five or six most popular handgun ammunition types at one time, that’s “only” a few millions of dollars in up-front costs, plus the cost of labor to operate and maintain what must be a fairly complex piece of equipment, plus the extra time and space added to the manufacturing process, and their attendant costs.

This could only look attractive to the manufacturer of the engraving machines, it seems to me. How many of them are lobbying for these bills in state legislatures around the country, and counting the added revenues as they drift off to sleep?

Of course, the gun control lobby has to be enthusiastic about anything the drives up the cost of personal protection via handgun, even a little. If the price of ammunition can be pushed high enough to put  it out of reach for a single mother in the projects, with a minimum wage job, an abusive “ex” who likes to drop by and beat her, and a neighborhood full of crack dealers and pimps who don’t seem to have any problems getting handguns and ammunition, so much the better.

And then, there’s the problem of privacy. Does anyone not know about information theft? A former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency “misplaces” a laptop with top secret documents on it. Tens of thousands of credit card numbers go missing because somebody was patient and skillful enough to penetrate a corporate network and steal them.

Even if you choose to ignore the deliberate misuse of “private” information within government (the browsing of passport data files at the State Department, or the illegal possession of private FBI files by White House staff come to mind), incompetence, laziness and corruption make the theft of such information as ammunition ownership not just likely, but nearly inevitable. Do we really want that sort of information lying around?

Criminals typically obtain handguns on the street, or by stealing them. In the jurisdictions with the strictest gun control laws on the books, a criminal can still get a handgun (or even a machine gun, if the price is right) in hours or even minutes. A criminal is someone predisposed to have no more regard for firearms laws than for any other laws, or he would not be a criminal. Would the criminal not also find ways to circumvent the “ammo codes” by getting his ammo on the street, from sources that are less than scrupulous about their record-keeping? As the history of gun laws repeatedly shows, an ammunition code law would only burden those who buy their ammunition legally. The criminals would skate.

Millions of pounds of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, opiates and other drugs are smuggled into the US annually by entrepreneurs who know a market when they see it. Will they not see a market for uncoded, or unregistered ammunition? Does anyone with a toehold in reality doubt it?

This “ammo coding” initiative looks like a scam advanced by an unholy alliance of opportunists who see a chance to profit from it, and power-hungry people who don’t trust John Q. Public with the means to defend himself with a handgun.

The legislative sponsors of these bills need to take five steps back and look at them from another point of view — and then, back away from them, completely.


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2 Responses to “Numbering the Bullets — and Backdoor Gun Control”

  1. Jerry the Geek Says:

    Tom, you write a nice article. You hit the high spots, but you were far to polite to the rascals who are pushing this tyrannical legislation.

    A couple of points needed to be emphasized, though, the most important may be that this applies not just to handgun ammunition; in most states, it applies to ANY ammunition, often including .22 plinker ammo.

    Another is that the engraving machine would not necessarily be included at the end of the production line. The original design puts the serial number on the BASE of the bullet, and also on the INSIDE of the cartridge case. Why? So it can’t be filed off by the purchaser.

    This means that the engraving takes place before the bullet is seated, before the powder is loaded, and before the primer is seated. Why? It’s laser engraving, so it can’t be done in the middle of the process. You can imagine the problems if the bullet and case serial numbers don’t match, in this litigious society. What are the legal ramifications?

    In fact, who wants to have a laser going in an ammunition factory? One big explosion would put a company out of business.

    You’ve read my blog article on the subject (and thank you for the nice comments). I’d like to provide a short link to it here.

    And of course I’ll update the article to include a link to this article.

    Cogito Ergo Geek


  2. Ammo Serialization « Cemetery’s Gun Blob Says:

    […] I stumbled upon this blog entry via Cogito Ergo Geek, and noticed […]

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