Major gunmakers' pullout will shake up California market, experts say

The Fresno BeeJanuary 24, 2014 

Semi-automatic handguns on display at Herb Bauer Sporting Goods in Fresno.


A decision by two major American gunmakers to stop selling new semi-automatic handguns in California will cause the market to dry up, gun industry officials say.

The reaction comes in the wake of an announcement this week by Smith & Wesson that it will stop shipping new semi-automatic pistols to California rather than comply with Assembly Bill 1471. The law requires new or redesigned semi-automatics to have microstamping, which marks bullet casings with a unique code when a gun is fired.

Another major gunmaker, Ruger, also refuses to adopt the technology for California sales.

Microstamping proponents say its use will allow police to link shell casings left at a crime scene with the gun that fired them. The American Academy of Pediatrics and dozens of police chiefs support it. Many gun owners as well as manufacturers and 14 county sheriffs oppose it. The opponents argue the technology is flawed because it can easily be defeated by simply filing the code off a weapon's firing pin and also because most guns used in crimes are stolen. In addition, manufacturers say implementing microstamping would require them to restructure their manufacturing process and would not be cost-effective. They also point to several studies that argue the technology is not yet viable.

A lawsuit filed in Fresno this month by the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute seeks to prevent Attorney General Kamala Harris from enforcing microstamping. Fresno gun dealer Barry Bauer of Herb Bauer Sporting Goods is seeking to join the suit as an injured party.

Sam Paredes, a spokesman for Gun Owners of California, said that between them, Smith & Wesson and Ruger make one-third of the semi-automatic pistols sold in California. He said their pullout from the state market is not political: "It's a business decision."

Adds Bauer: "This is a big deal. All of the other pistol manufacturers will be affected by the new DOJ renewal enforcement policy during this year. This means almost all semi-automatic pistols will fall off the list (of state Department of Justice-approved guns) this year."

Bauer and others say another state law comes into play now that AB 1471 is in effect. That law, the Unsafe Handgun Act, was intent on banning the sale of cheap, unsafe guns in California. It requires weapons to undergo a "drop test" to make sure they don't fire accidentally and be equipped with other safety measures before it gets on the list of approved guns. Now, the DOJ requires that any model that's changed -- for any reason -- must be retested, with the retested weapon equipped with microstamping, Bauer said.

Bauer and others say firearms manufacturers make minor adaptations all the time to improve their firearms, such as changing spring tension or using components from different vendors. Some of the guns have been on the DOJ list for a decade, and the minor changes will require microstamping, said Paredes. Gun makers will not make the California-specific weapons, he added.

Law enforcement will be exempt from the microstamping requirement, but Paredes said that will also create problems, including liability lawsuits if a police officer uses a firearm that is deemed unsafe by the DOJ. Many California agencies now use Smith & Wesson firearms.

"Eventually, law enforcement is going to have to make a decision (about microstamping)," he said.

Officials from the California Department of Justice could not be reached for comment.

Previously, Cody Jacobs, a staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco, dismissed objections to microstamping. "The gun lobby always makes the same hysterical claims," Jacobs said earlier this month. "This will help law enforcement solve gun crimes going forward."

Jacobs predicted then that manufacturers will adopt the technology to keep selling in the state.

The reporter may be reached at (559) 441-6339, or @jimguy27 on Twitter.

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