Three Seattle Guys Want to Bar-Code Bullets

Second Amendment junkies hate that idea

Russ Ford might look like a longhaired, gun-control, hippie type. And in many ways, he is. Ford and his business partners, Steve Mace and John Knickerbocker, have patented a system that uses laser technology to imprint coding on ammunition with the hope of making it easier for cops to track it back to its shooter. But Ford is not a gun-hating, anti-self-defense (as his opponents call him) activist; he has several guns that were passed down by his father, and once was an avid hunter. Unloading rounds into paper and clay pigeons at a range is still a favorite hobby. "An armed society is a polite society," Ford says, echoing rhetoric favored by Second Amendment devotees. As a gun lover bent on creating a system for tracking ammunition, Ford is an anomaly in the firearm advocacy world. Says Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, "I'm sure every gun group in the state is opposed to it." Ford's partner, Mace, says the idea for coding ammunition originated when the trio heard the story of a police shooting where two officers fired their weapons, but only one hit the suspect. In an investigation of the shooting, both officers were put on leave, since there wasn't an immediate way to determine which one of them had fired the bullet. "We finally came up with, 'Well, why don't we just put a mark on a bullet to distinguish one from the other,'" Mace says. Ford adds that they also figured bullets and casings were more likely to be left behind at a crime scene than a gun. With serialized ammunition, whether by the bullet or the box, it would be possible to at least find out who had originally purchased the rounds. Mace and Ford spent four and a half years and about $200,000 securing the patent for their ammunition tracking system. But once that patent was in place and they had formed a company, the unambiguously named Ammunition Coding System, to market the product, they couldn't find a manufacturer willing to consider stamping their bullets. So they focused their efforts on convincing lawmakers that coded ammunition could be a crucial crime-solving tool. To this end, Ammunition Coding hired Briahna Taylor, a lobbyist with Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell's Tacoma-based government affairs office. With Taylor's help, they began pushing for ammunition coding legislation on the state level. Taylor quickly launched a Web site, ammunitionaccountability.com, and bills were introduced in 12 states, including Washington. On Feb. 8, Rep. Al O'Brien, D–Mountlake Terrace, introduced a bill in Olympia that would have required all pistol ammunition manufactured or sold in the state to be coded. Had it passed, the Department of Licensing would have been responsible for creating and maintaining a bullet database. But O'Brien's bill was a legislative long shot, as he introduced it after the cutoff to get a hearing in the Judiciary Committee. Hence, the bill is, for all intents and purposes, dead. (O'Brien did not respond to requests for comment.) Despite the bill's failure, the fact that it was introduced at all has the Washington State Rifle and Pistol Association nervous. The registered nonprofit, organized under the umbrella of the National Rifle Association, is vehemently opposed to such ballistics coding. The day O'Brien introduced his bill, a post went up on the WSRPA Web site telling members that ballistics coding would increase the cost of ammunition and require a significant expansion of state bureaucracy to track ammunition. "Don't expect it to fade away," the site warns members. For his part, Ford says the method for marking ammunition is fairly cheap—pennies per bullet. He also points out that marking and tracking individual products is hardly a new phenomenon. Most beer cans, he notes, have a stamp showing where and when they originated, making it possible to track if there's a problem with the contents on the consumer end. Yet Gottlieb says the problem with ammunition coding is not just the potential increased cost of ammunition or the creation of a database to track sales, but the fact that a company could get a patent and then pursue legislation that, if enacted, would essentially give that company a monopoly on the implementation of that legislation. Ford counters that the patent system is designed to give inventors a monopoly for a time to offset the costs involved in inventing their product. "Some protection is afforded inventors everywhere that have come up with ideas," he says. Mace, Ford, and Knickerbocker met while working for the Seattle-based real estate mogul Martin Selig. Discovering a mutual entrepreneurial spirit, they began tinkering with ideas, and in 1998, Ford and Knickerbocker applied for a patent on small knobs that could be easily affixed to outdoor ledges and benches to prevent skateboarders from using them for tricks and jumps. The patent came through in 2001, and they formed Ravensforge, a company now owned by Ford's sister-in-law that distributes the underrated banes of a skater's existence. Ford still puts in time at Ravensforge, working in shipping and receiving. The company sells between 20,000 and 40,000 units a year, he says. When it's nice out, more skateboarders are apt to tear up edges, and business spikes. "There's nobody that prays for less rain than me," Ford says with a laugh. Capital from Ravensforge, as well as investments from family and friends, provided the initial cash infusion used to conceive the ammunition coding system. Richard O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, says incidents like the police shooting that inspired Ammunition Coding are rare, and he's doubtful it would significantly benefit crime solving. Matching evidence at a crime scene to a database never goes as smoothly as television law-enforcement dramas would suggest, he claims. "We already find that gun laws don't do a whole lot there because a lot of your suspects aren't people who follow all the laws," O'Neill says. He expects the same thing to happen with ammunition if serialization is legally mandated—a new black market in unregistered serial numbers and stolen bullets. That said, O'Neill concedes that if it can be shown that tracking ammunition through bullet coding does aid in solving crimes, he'd support legislation to require it. "If it helps law enforcement catch some bad guys, then I'd be all for it," he says. While no coding legislation has passed in any state to date, there is rising interest in making ammunition more identifiable. Last October, California passed a law requiring all semiautomatic pistols to be equipped with pins that stamp the bullet as it's fired, creating an easily distinguished link between the ammunition and the gun. Federal legislation mirroring the California law has since been introduced; in February, The New York Times editorialized in support of efforts to make ammunition tracking easier. Both the California law and the proposed federal legislation are adamantly opposed by gun groups. The debate over ammunition coding isn't fundamentally about cost or the difficulty in managing a law-enforcement bullet database. It's about the reach of the Second Amendment, says Gottlieb, who claims bullet coding is a backdoor way to track gun ownership in states like Washington that don't require gun registration. "What you have in your own home for self-protection isn't the government's business," Gottlieb says. Ford's response is that law-abiding gun owners wouldn't need to worry about ammunition tracking, since they wouldn't be committing gun-related crimes in the first place. "It isn't about safe and responsible firearm owners," he says. "We all realize that there are bigger issues than us involved in this." Of course, if legislation is passed requiring coding that they alone are in the business of producing, they stand to make a pretty penny as well. lonstot@seattleweekly.com

 
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