It may be cliché that the devil’s in the details, but when it comes to proper firearms markings, the cliché is the simple truth. If you’re a manufacturer of firearms, to ensure your compliance with firearms markings, you’re having to look at federal law, federal regulation, ATF rulings, and judicial decisions. That’s a lot of sources at the federal level, without even touching upon anything else that an individual state might require.
Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, manufacturers and licensed importers are required to engrave or cast a serial number on the receiver or frame of a weapon, in accordance with federal regulations. Federal regulations specify the method (engraving, casting, stamping/impressing), plus the information (model, caliber/gauge, manufacturer’s name, place of origin), plus the location of the information (frame, receiver, barrel), plus the minimum depth (1/16”).
Also, the ATF issued Ruling 2012-1 that speaks to the question of the point in the manufacturing process that the serial number is applied. It states that “…firearms required to be marked at the time of manufacture include both ‘complete weapons,’ and complete frames or receivers of such weapons that are to be sold, shipped, or otherwise disposed of separately.”
Both the law, the associated regulations, and the Ruling are very specific and are subject to change. Best compliance practices would suggest that these sections and opinion are routinely reviewed for any modifications or updates. This should be done by a designated compliance employee, pursuant to a written company policy.
Once a firearm is marked, it becomes a crime to be in possession of firearms with altered or obliterated serial numbers. A 2005 court ruling found that the provision applies when the serial number “is materially changed in a way that makes accurate information less accessible.” The alteration or obliteration does not have to rise to the level of making the firearm scientifically untraceable. One court even ruled that any damage to the serial number is sufficient to qualify, even if the damage did not render the serial number unreadable.
While seemingly complicated, this coupling of law, regulation, department opinion, and judicial opinion is the routine approach for federal compliance requirements for firearms and ammunition manufacturers. Easiest way to check yourself on whether you’re remembering to look at everything? The federal government is a three-legged stool and each branch – legislative, executive, and judicial – has a hand in setting the requirements under which you operate.