Leading firearms manufacturers ending sales in California: The not-so-unintended consequences of bad legislation

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Guest Commentary
by Michael Schwartz

Industry leaders Smith & Wesson and Strum, Ruger & Co. Inc. (Ruger) are two of the most well-known, trusted names in the firearms business. Starting business in 1852 and 1949 respectively, these two companies now manufacture about one in every four firearms produced in the U.S., according to a survey by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

This year California will become the only state in which these two American icons cannot sell their legal products that you have the right to keep and bear.

Starting in January of 2001, the State Legislature passed into law Penal Code 3200 Article 5, creating a list of handguns approved for sale in California that have been deemed “not unsafe.” Yes, I wrote that correctly. The California government actually uses the term “not unsafe.” In order to get a product onto the “not-unsafe” list, a manufacturer must submit three samples of each product model for testing by a lab in Maryland, Illinois, or Kansas that will certify it as “not unsafe.” The cost is $2,000+ for the certification and around $500 annually to stay on the “not unsafe” list.

Kevin Black, Manager of Technical Operations for H.P. White Labs in Maryland, told me that not one pistol has ever failed the “drop test” portion of the certification and that less than one percent of pistols have ever failed any part of the test. None failed catastrophically (meaning a failure that would normally result in injury or misfire by the user). In other words, the testing is bunk and its purpose is not really safety.

If a manufacturer wants to upgrade any part on the pistol or sell models with any slight variation, then three of each upgraded pistol model must be submitted and a $10,000 fee must be re-paid for each.

For example:

This is a Glock 19.

And this is a Glock 19.

Both pistols pictured are made with the same materials, are the same caliber, take the same ammunition, are made on the same machines, are manufactured at the same factory, and function exactly the same. But one is part green and one is black. Because of the difference in color, three of each model would have to be submitted for testing, with thousands of dollars in state fees having to be paid for each to remain on California’s “not-unsafe” list. Submitting three of each isn’t a huge task if you are a company like Glock that sells thousands of each model every year at a cost under $500 each. But what about custom pistols that are sold for a few thousand each and simply do not sell to a mass market customer? This makes it impossible for California to be a viable option for small business. For example, STI International makes competition firearms and was one of the first companies to be regulated out of the California market. They stopped being able to do business in California in 2007.

Last year Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris decided that a law signed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007 would now be put into effect. The law requires every pistol sold by a dealer in California have a serial number on the tiny tip of the firing pin so that it imprints an identifying mark on the ejected casing of a fired cartridge. Without this, a pistol cannot get onto the “not unsafe” list. It was agreed upon at the time of passage that the law would not go into effect until the imprint technology was developed.

The firing pin is inside the gun and is smaller than a pencil lead. It strikes the cartridge to make the bullet fire out of the end of the barrel of the firearm. An ejected casing is that little, round brass part that you see in movies and TV next to every shooting victim or that you hear hitting the ground after someone shoots a gun. The idea behind the law is that investigators will collect the brass, trace the serial number imprinted on the brass to the firearm, and solve the case just in time for the last commercial break.

The problem is this is real life. Nobody has developed the technology to make a stamp on the end of a firing pin reliably and successfully so as to consistently leave a serial number on a brass casing. When Smith & Wesson and Ruger asked the California Department of Justice where to get these firing pins, the Department of Justice had no answer. So as a result, no new pistols can be added to the dwindling list of “not unsafe” pistols allowed for sale in California.

Some of the other problems with the micro stamp law:

• The firing pins can easily be changed after a crime is committed or filed down so no serial number exists.

• The serial number only leads to the last known registered owner of the gun.  Not to the criminal who stole the gun to commit the crime.

• The criminal can easily collect his casings and/or leave other casings from other guns to mislead investigators, making the case even harder to solve.

• The criminal could use a revolver, which doesn’t eject casings.

So if all these problems exist, why would Attorney General Harris activate and start to enforce this old law?

If you want to sell a pistol in California that you manufacture, you must be on the approved list and you now cannot be on the approved list unless the firing pin in your product stamps an identifying serial number onto the casing before it is ejected from the gun. The result is gun companies like Smith & Wesson and Ruger are ending sales in California because they are unable to comply. Now is it all becoming clearer?

Anti-gun laws passed in Sacramento have already ended sales by manufacturers like Barrett Firearms and STI International. Smith & Wesson and Ruger have joined fellow manufacturer Glock and organizations Second Amendment Foundation and National Shooting Sports Foundation in a lawsuit against California regarding their “not unsafe” gun list scheme. The attorney heading the case is Alan Gura, who in 2008 helped win Heller vs. D.C. in front of the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Second Amendment is an individual right.

“When there is an illegal drug problem, laws aren’t passed to punish people who need medication or the regulated pharmacists who provide those drugs,” said Dennis Rohman, manager of P2K Gun Range. “But when the subject of guns comes up, immediately the conversation is about taking from those who use guns to protect their self and family and taking from the already heavily regulated dealers who are the first line of defense when it comes to stopping gun crime. Because Smith & Wesson and Ruger cannot conduct business in California, it’s taking away a large percentage of my inventory, which will result in lost revenue to the state, but won’t stop crime.”

Rohman sells firearms to around 200 San Diegans a month. All are charged sales tax and a $25 fee by California, which means hundreds of thousands in revenue to the state from just his one shop.

“In a nutshell, this is nothing more than political extortion,” said Marc Halcon, owner of American Shooting Center. “I must applaud the decision of Smith & Wesson and Ruger. Yes, I will take a financial hit, but this isn’t about me. This is about the future of the State of California and electing responsible people to represent us.”

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Schwartz is a member of the San Diego County Republican Liberty Caucus and Volunteer Regional Coordinator for Gun Owners of California.

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Comments 7

  1. Thank you Mike.
    When a legislator writes an immoral law good people become criminals overnight. I am thinking of Prohibition. It did not address demand so it simply empowered bootleggers, decreased quality, increased costs and stretched police.

    I am going to assume prices for hand guns will increase and good people will simply purchase their Rugers and S&W and more dollars of our dollars will find the economies of other states. A.G. Harris belongs in a different era where officials operated above the law – Divine Right of Kings.

  2. It is just a matter of time when ALL semi auto firearms will fall into this category. This is just the start as there will be others laws coming affecting the sale of ammunition. What a novel way to disarm an entire state.
    The democrats are like rats and hunk of cheese, they keep nibbling away until all our rights are gone.
    What will it take to restore those rights?

  3. This was the purpose of this bill and others like it all along. The gun grabbers know they can’t outlaw guns in California, but if they make the regulations applying to them so onerous and applying only in California, then the manufactures will do their dirty work for them, and stop selling firearms in California.

    Of course, as we all know, those upstanding and law-abiding criminals will obviously not be able to purchase these guns, since they won’t be sold in California. It’s not like the thugs will buy guns in the same manner they already do, ILLEGALLY.

  4. I’ll throw out my usual questions to the legislators and the AG: What’s the goal? When will it be achieved? and if it doesn’t meet your promises it needs to be automatically repealed, not left on the books.

  5. They haven’t thought of any of those so its clearly just an attempt to get liberal votes.

  6. Stand by. The rest of the nation will follow. It is just a matter of time. Mr. Eric Schroeder: The goal of Obama, Eric Holder and the rest of the present administration is to un-arm America, one way or another. Anyone voting for a Democrat will insure their goal no matter what they say while campaigning.

  7. If/when my family finally decides to leave the oppressive Golden State, the gun laws and attitude of a prospective state will be a factor I’ll seriously consider. Not the only factor, but some states are not even on the “prospective” list as a result.

    Fortunately most of the relatively low tax, business friendly, pro freedom states also have pretty good gun laws. But one must look at a state’s demographics and voting patterns to see if a swing towards oppression is likely in the future. Nevada, for instance, could very well go California postal on its citizens — still up in the air.

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