SAN FRANCISCO — It’s been more than a decade since state lawmakers passed a law requiring expended shell casings from new-model semiautomatic pistols to carry identifying marks called microstamps, which police would be able to use to pinpoint a gun used in a crime.
But, despite support from law enforcement, the stamps have yet to appear on any guns in California.
Firearms manufacturers say microstamping is still beyond the range of modern technology. They’ve refused to sell new models of the handguns in the state since the law took effect, and on Wednesday they asked an apparently skeptical state Supreme Court to halt the law’s enforcement.
“The Legislature is requiring something that is totally impossible,” Lance Selfridge, a lawyer for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said at a one-hour hearing in Los Angeles. He contended the microstamping law violates a “maxim” that legislators adopted as a statute in 1872 declaring that “the law never requires impossibilities.”
The state’s lawyer, Deputy Attorney General Janill Richards, disagreed. Gunmakers, she countered, will have the means to comply with the law sometime in the foreseeable future, and the lawmakers are entitled to enact such challenging measures as “an incentive to push technology forward.” The general wording of the 1872 law, she said, was not a barrier, and several justices appeared to agree.
Why would a new law, enacted more than a century later, “violate (the 1872 law) as opposed to superseding it?” asked Justice Leondra Kruger. “The Legislature can change the law” by passing later, more specific laws, she said.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye noted that courts presume new laws are valid and require opponents to prove they are unconstitutional. Even if the 1872 maxim also has the force of law, she asked, “why would it invalidate another statute?”
And Norman Epstein, a state appeals court justice from Los Angeles assigned to the case in place of the retired Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, questioned whether such maxims are “legislative commands” rather than non-binding guidelines.