In 2010, gun-control activists thought they were on the verge of a major victory in Albany.

Led by then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and backed by his considerable fortune, activists were pushing a bill requiring new handguns be equipped with microstamping -- technology allowing a unique code to be etched into each bullet casing as it's fired. The marked casing could then be used to determine the make, model and serial number of the weapon from whence it came. The technology has been billed as an aid to law enforcement seeking to identify a gun used by an assailant.

Ultimately, they came up short. It’s remained that way for the last 12 years.

Now, as New York reels from an increase in gun violence, gun-control activists appear on track for victory once again.

This week, New York could become the second state in the U.S. to begin the process of mandating microstamping capability in newly manufactured handguns sold in New York. The push comes despite significant opposition from the firearms industry. Gun-control activists say they’re hopeful the Democratic-controlled state Legislature will approve a measure advancing the initiative before lawmakers end their annual legislative session on Thursday.

That sentiment is bolstered in part by Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul’s backing as she pushes a series of gun-control measures in response to recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Texas.

“I'm very hopeful,” said state Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat who sponsored the current version of the bill. “Every major [gun-control] group is supporting this bill that would require microstamping technology to be deployed.”

Gun reform bill package

Hochul and legislative leaders have been negotiating a package of gun-control measures in hopes of getting it passed before Thursday. Among other items, they have been discussing bills that would ban the sale of AR-15 semi-automatic rifles to those under the age of 21 and expand the list of professions that can file reports under the state’s Red Flag law, which allows a judge to bar someone from owning guns if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others.

The last-minute push has also revived the long-dormant debate on microstamping, with Hochul making clear she wants it as part of any package the Legislature approves. At a news conference last week, Hochul called the still-emerging technology an “incredible tool to help our law enforcement share information.”

The concept of microstamping drew a lukewarm response from the New York State Sheriffs’ Association, which represents county sheriffs across the state. Peter Kehoe, executive director of the organization, wrote in an email that the association has “not taken a formal position on the issue.”

“We are not opposed to a microstamping requirement, but we are doubtful that it will be of great practical value in criminal investigations,” he wrote.

The existing microstamping bill has been around in various forms since 2009, when Bloomberg made it one of his major legislative priorities at the state Capitol. He argued it had the potential to be a major tool for law enforcement, allowing the authorities to quickly determine who had purchased a gun used at a crime if they found a casing at a crime scene – which is far more common than finding the actual gun.

It is something we have long supported in addition to many measures to get guns off our streets and ensure safe communities. We are discussing everything.
Michael Whyland, a spokesperson for Assembly Democrats and Speaker Carl Heastie

In 2010, Bloomberg organized a major lobbying push with police officials from New York City and across the state, culminating with a rally in Albany on June 15th, 2010. That was the same day the Senate, then controlled by the slimmest of Democratic majorities, put it to a vote. But three upstate Democrats from moderate or conservative-leaning districts declined to support the measure, and Republicans voted against it en masse, leading to its imminent defeat when the vote was quickly stopped.

Now, Democrats hold a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and Assembly, all but ensuring passage should the measure get a full vote.

Legislative leaders have signaled they are on board with the concept. But whether the microstamping measure is ultimately put to a vote will ultimately depend on the closed-door negotiations with Hochul’s office and whether legislative leaders can reach consensus on the bill’s considerable details.

Former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Mike Groll/AP/Shutterstock

“It is something we have long supported in addition to many measures to get guns off our streets and ensure safe communities,” said Michael Whyland, a spokesperson for Assembly Democrats and Speaker Carl Heastie. “We are discussing everything.”

The current microstamping bill is sponsored by Hoylman and Manhattan Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal.

If passed, it wouldn’t simply flip a switch and immediately implement a microstamping mandate. Instead, it would be a multi-year process that would be phased in over time – assuming state law-enforcement officials sign off on it in the first place.

Multi-year process

First, the state Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) – which oversees law-enforcement accreditation in New York – would have six months to conduct testing of the still-new technology, which involves firing live rounds and assessing how reliably the stamps show up on casings. From there, the division would have to determine whether or not it finds the technology “viable” – which the gun lobby argues it is not.

If the division does certify the microstamping technology, then it would have a year to come up with performance and quality standards and two years to establish verification, training and servicing rules.

The mandate would kick in four years after DCJS’ initial certification. That’s when it would become illegal to sell a semi-automatic pistol without microstamping capability, punishable by a fine of $500 for a first offense and possible license suspension. A third offense would carry a misdemeanor charge and a guaranteed license suspension. Pistols manufactured before that date would be grandfathered in and wouldn’t be required to have microstamping, further adding to the mandate’s gradual rollout.

“I am eager to pass it into law because the bill delineates a process which we need to get started in order to actually have all pistols with microstamps,” Rosenthal said Friday.

Fighting the bill

The gun industry and gun-rights groups have been actively trying to stop the measure from moving forward.

Last year, the National Shooting Sports Foundation – the major industry trade group – published an essay titled the “Moronic Myths of Microstamping,” calling it an “unproven and unworkable” technology.

This bill has floated around Albany for well over a decade and has gone nowhere for a good reason: It doesn’t work.
National Rifle Association memo

The National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action issued a memo against Hoylman and Rosenthal’s bill in March 2021. The memo called microstamping a “failed concept” that no state in the country has successfully implemented – along with New York, a similar microstamping bill remains pending in New Jersey – and suggested it would amount to a backdoor ban on handguns since manufacturers haven’t yet incorporated the technology broadly.

“This bill has floated around Albany for well over a decade and has gone nowhere for a good reason: It doesn’t work,” the memo reads.

But gun-control activists say there’s a reason why microstamping technology hasn’t been widely implemented: The firearms industry.

Learning from California

So far, California is the only state to pass microstamping legislation, way back in 2007. In 2013, the state certified that the mandate was able to move ahead. But, based on how the law was written, the gun industry was able to essentially boycott the measure by declining to sell new handgun models in California.

California lawmakers approved a new law in 2020 meant to slowly close that loophole, and it’s set to take effect this July, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

The current New York bill would take California’s experiences into account, said David Pucino, deputy chief counsel for the Giffords Center. The measure’s grandfather clause is based on when the gun itself was manufactured, not when the model was created. And it would allow DCJS to certify an entity other than the gun makers themselves to install microstamping capabilities, he said.

“That's something that I think New York has looked to in the bill that’s proposed here, and that’s how to get around the intransigence of the gun industry to make sure that this technology is brought to guns and the industry is unable to use its collusive powers to avoid doing it,” Pucino said.

Microstamping does have support from New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former NYPD officer who voted for the measure in 2010 as a member of the state Senate before the bill was pulled.

“This is an important bill, and politics should not get in the way of public safety,” Adams, a Democrat, said at the time.