- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

In the aftermath of the sniper attacks that plagued the District, Maryland and Virginia in the fall of 2002, Time magazine and television’s “60 Minutes” publicized calls for the federal government to develop a “ballistic fingerprint” database. This would require gun manufacturers to test fire new guns, to record the cartridge case and bullet images and to supply the test information to a central agency, such as the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.The idea is that since gun makers and dealers are already required to keep sales records and serial numbers of guns, in theory, if a cartridge case or bullet was found at a crime scene and a supercomputer matched it to a particular gun, law enforcement officials would be able to track the gun from the manufacturer to the initial purchaser. If the purchaser was the criminal, the crime would be solved.The term “ballistic fingerprinting,” is misleading. Fingerprints are immutable. Ballistic markings are not.Every fan of television police dramas has seen an ideal version of this system at work, and such a system sounds good in theory. However, TV “reality” and real world police work are very different. The best evidence shows a ballistic image database would solve few crimes and would divert scarce resources from more productive crime-fighting programs.Over the last decade the BATFE has built the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), a database of ballistic images from bullets and cases associated with crimes. Even with the database limited to guns found in relation to a crime, the success of the database is less than overwhelming. Of a total of 166,672 bullet entries, queries to the NIBIN database had produced 264 “hits” — about a 0.16 percent match rate. And of the 351,194 cartridge case entries only 4,395 cartridge matches were found — a rate of 1.25 percent.These few matches were expensive. Indeed, nationwide the equipment cost alone topped $51.5 illion, which does not include the cost of operator training, system maintenance and operator hours. This is equivalent to an equipment cost of about $12,000 for a cartridge case hit and about $195,000 for a bullet hit. Of course, just because a ballistic match is found does not mean that it led to solving a crime.To the extent that the NIBIN database works, it does so because it contains only images of bullets or cartridge cases found at crime scenes or from test-firing guns seized from criminals. The problems caused by creating databases of guns owned by law-abiding citizens are illustrated by the experience of Maryland and New York.A 2000 Maryland law requires that images of test-fired cartridge cases for every new handgun sold be added to the state’s ballistic database. New York instituted its own database in 2001. It has cost Maryland more than $5 million and New York more than $4.5 million to purchase, use and maintain their databases, but the databases have yet to solve a single violent crime in either state. Indeed, as of November 2002, New York’s system had yet to produce a single hit. Meanwhile, Maryland cut 12 state trooper positions as an economy measure. Had the money spent on “ballistic fingerprinting” been used to maintain the existing community police programs or to maintain state police levels, many more crimes might have been solved or prevented. Even one solved crime would outweigh the nonexistent crime-solving accomplishments of the “ballistic fingerprinting” program.The limitations of ballistic imaging stem from numerous factors. Over time, barrel wear caused by firing will produce different ballistic images for bullets fired when the gun was new and those fired later. Replacing parts of the gun — which is common among sport shooters — may change the ballistic image. And ammunition from different manufacturers may vary the marks from the same gun. In addition, cartridge cases often are recycled, reloaded and sometimes resold.Ballistic markings can also be intentionally changed. Gun markings can be altered with a steel brush, nail file or patch soaked in an abrasive. The marking also can be changed by shooting ammunition with dirt, grit or grinding powder on it, or by polishing.It is already common for criminals to erase the serial number of a gun. As ballistics databases are developed, it is likely that some criminals will change a gun’s ballistic markings through one of the above methods. A gun’s ballistic image can be altered at leisure and altered repeatedly after crimes are committed.As a rule, police support and lobby for any cost-effective tool that might improve their odds of solving or preventing crimes. Based on the current state of the technology, the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police organization in the United States, does not support a national ballistic database of new guns. The FOP argues that the money and other resources used to create and maintain such a system, with such small chances it would be used to solve a firearms crime, would be best spent elsewhere. H. Sterling Burnett is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

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