City seeks safeguards on sale of bullets

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Jan 24, 2006
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City seeks safeguards on sale of bullets
Tracking technology is among possibilities
By Suzanne Smalley, Globe Staff | February 13, 2006

With firearm violence in Boston continuing to surge, police and city officials are looking for new anticrime tools, potentially including limiting ammunition sales, recording who buys ammunition, and using a new technology that transfers a gun's serial number onto a bullet's shell casing any time the gun is fired, said two officials who know about the plans.

Police Department and city officials offered few details publicly, but in his weekly column on the city's website, Mayor Thomas M. Menino discusses his plans, saying his recently formed strategic crime council is ''examining everything from ammunition sales regulation and bullet micro-stamping to stricter sentencing for illegal possession and trafficking."

''We want to tighten up how people can get ammunition," Police Superintendent Robert Dunford said. ''We're seeing loose rounds, a mix of ammunition. That might be a point of attack for us. . . . When you get the gun with ammunition and you fire it off, then you need to resupply. . . . That can be tough."

Dunford said Menino's office is working on proposed legislation to regulate ammunition. A spokesman for Menino declined to comment on the specifics of any legislation, saying only, ''Mayor Menino has made the message clear. He has a tremendous sense of urgency around devising both policy alternatives and new legislation that could make Boston a safer city."

The officials with knowledge of the plans, who declined to be named because the City Hall review is just beginning, said the city will focus on tightening the law.

Currently, vendors are not required to record who buys ammunition, and buyers can purchase as much as they want, said Sergeant Detective Ray Mosher, who supervises the Boston Police Licensing unit, which regulates ammunition sales in the city. Mosher also said the current law allows buyers with a license for one type of gun to buy ammunition for any type of gun.

The number of shootings in which people were wounded or killed rose 28 percent last year over 2004. Police rolled out several programs to try to reverse that spike in gun violence, but after two shooting deaths Friday, there were six this year, compared with four at the same time last year. There have been 36 nonfatal shootings this year compared with 17 this time last year.

Police and city officials acknowledge that criminals could buy ammunition on the black market and out of state, but they say they have noticed an apparent shortage of ammunition on the streets. They also say that youths, who are both suspects and victims in many shootings, might be deterred if ammunition is more difficult to get.

The officials said Menino's interest in the new bullet-tracking technology, known as microstamping, is exploratory.Still, the city is interested in the technology's ability to allow investigators to tie shell casings to gun owners. Under current ballistics technology, detectives must recover a weapon to link an owner to a crime scene or must compare markings on shell casings with bullets fired from guns recovered later.

''Microstamping is the most elegant solution to this problem," said Joshua Horwitz, the executive director of the nonprofit gun control advocacy group Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.

Horwitz said two members of Congress are preparing legislation that would require gun manufacturers to begin outfitting weapons with microstamping technology.

One of the most interesting features of microstamping technology is the ability it gives police to tap easily into existing databases, Horwitz said. In Massachusetts, buyers must list their name and the serial number of the weapon they're purchasing.

''It's using what's set up now," said Horwitz, who spoke at a US Conference of Mayors anticrime meeting attended by Menino last month. ''There's no extra administrative responsibilities."

Horwitz said microstamping legislation recently passed one house of the California Legislature.

Griffin Dix, whose 15-year-old son was killed in an unintentional shooting and who now runs the California chapters of the Million Mom March, a group that fights for tougher gun laws, said he is hopeful the California Legislature will pass the microstamping bill, which he said would require the technology for all semi-automatic handguns sold there by 2009.

About 30 police chiefs have also lobbied legislators in support of the bill, Dix said. Handguns are used in about 60 percent of the average of 2,400 annual homicides in California, and no arrest is made in 45 percent of them because police don't have enough evidence, Dix said.

''If people realize that they are likely to be found out, who bought that gun, then they're less likely to commit a crime," Dix said. ''Also, this will have an effect on reducing gun trafficking. . . . With straw purchasers knowing that this gun can be traced right back to them . . . they're less likely to buy these guns and give them to traffickers."

But Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, a gun rights advocacy group, said criminals will always find ways around systems such as microstamping.

''Schemes such as this do not work for a very simple reason: Criminals by definition don't follow the law," Arulanandam said. ''Therefore, the only universe of people who are affected by this are law-abiding. A criminal intent on committing a heinous crime is not going to be deterred by such laws."

But Menino appears to be listening to groups on the other side of the issue.

Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said Menino's office asked the gun control advocacy organization in November for advice on how to combat firearm violence. He said the Brady Campaign advised City Hall not only on the availability of microstamping technology, but also on the importance of partnering with other urban mayors, as Menino has recently done with New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

''If there are ideas on the table that could increase closure rate of gun crime investigations by 10 or 15 or 20 percent, they're worth doing because there are real victims here," Hamm said.

''We felt like the city's interest in this and the mayor's interest in this is strikingly real because of the outreach they've made to us
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