Monday, January 17, 2005

BALTIMORE — A law requiring Maryland State Police to collect ballistics information from each handgun sold in the state should be repealed because the expensive system is flawed and has not helped a criminal investigation since it was adopted in 2000, a state police report has concluded.

The report recommended transferring laboratory technicians who work on the Integrated Ballistics Identification System to the state police DNA Database Unit.

“The program simply has not met expectations and does not aid in the mission statement of the Department of State Police,” the report said.

Col. Thomas E. Hutchins, the state police superintendent, said he would like to spend the money instead on proven crime-fighting techniques. About $2.5 million has been spent on the program.

“The system really is not doing anything,” Col. Hutchins said.

Maryland was the first state to adopt a ballistic fingerprinting law in April 2000. New York is the only other state to have such a database.

When a bullet is fired, it is scratched with unique markings, or “fingerprints,” as it passes through the gun’s barrel. The law requires gun manufacturers to test-fire handguns and send a spent shell casing from each gun sold in Maryland to the state police. The agency is required to enter the casing’s markings into a database, using a digital image designed for future gun tracing.

But the report, compiled in September by the Maryland State Police Forensic Sciences Division, concluded the ballistics identification system has failed “to provide any meaningful hits.”

Guns used in crimes are not the ones being entered into the system, the report found.

“The guns that we find at crime scenes may not necessarily be the ones sold in Maryland, so there’s nothing to compare it to anyway,” Col. Hutchins said.

The report also pointed to shortcomings in how the ballistics information is sent to authorities. In one case, a gun dealer, rather than the gun manufacturer, test-fired guns. “This procedure lacks any safeguard to quality assurance and thus makes the integrity of the database suspect,” the report said.

Col. Hutchins said the report has been submitted to legislators. Although Col. Hutchins has not asked for legislation to repeal the law, he said some lawmakers are interested in changing the statute.

“I think we’ll probably see somebody submit a bill to change the statute and say it’s no longer required in Maryland,” Col. Hutchins said.

Gun-control groups have advocated ballistic fingerprinting systems, saying they are effective crime-fighting tools.

Leah Barrett, executive director of CeaseFire Maryland, said police are not using the database enough, instead relying on a national ballistics database that has only ballistics images from crime scenes. As a result, she said, the national database cannot lead investigators directly to the specific firearm that produced a recovered ballistic image unless the gun is eventually recovered.

She said scrapping the state program could deal a setback to better ballistics imaging.

“I think it’s a real tragedy because other states are looking at New York and Maryland to see how we succeed with this,” Miss Barrett said.

But the National Rifle Association has denounced the system as a form of gun registration that affects only law-abiding gun owners.

Sanford Abrams, vice president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association, said the system only leads police to the person who bought the gun, when many guns used in crimes have been stolen. He also said the system has too many technical flaws to be effective and is too expensive.

“We’re all in favor of law-enforcement tools that actually work,” he said. “This doesn’t.”

The report also considered results from a sister system in New York, which has compiled almost 80,000 cartridge case profiles without recording any meaningful hits in an investigation.

“The fact that two systems performing the same function and yet have no results indicate of performance in the manner for which the systems were designed is significant,” the report said.

The Maryland state police conducted the yearlong study of the program after an initial report found shortcomings.

“What I’d like to see done is probably just leave it as it is,” Col. Hutchins said. “It’ll still stand alone without going through any more inputting of data into it.”

An audit made public in July found that the state police did not ensure that casings for all qualifying handguns were entered into the Maryland Integrated Ballisics Identification System.

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