Thursday, March 6, 2008

A government study requested by the Justice Department recommends against the creation of a national gun database to solve crimes by collecting images of ballistic markings from all new weapons sold in the United States.

The study, released yesterday by the National Research Council, cites “practical limitations of current technology for generating and comparing images” and said that database searches “would likely produce too many candidate ‘matches’ to be helpful.”

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) could use such a database to help investigators link ballistics evidence — cartridge cases or bullets found at crime scenes — to match specific guns to where they were sold.

“There would be significant limitations in the usefulness of such a database,” the study said.

The assumption underlying forensic firearms identification, that every gun leaves microscopic marks on bullets and cartridge cases that are unique to each weapon, has not been scientifically demonstrated, the study said.

“Most importantly, there is a huge existing supply of weapons and ammunition that would not be entered into the database,” the report said. “In addition, revolvers do not eject cartridge cases at crime scenes as do other handguns.”

To collect and catalog test-fired cartridges of all new guns would create “a formidable logistical challenge,” the study said.

In the wake of the October 2002 sniper shootings in the Washington area, several bills floated around in Congress to create a national reference ballistic image database (RBID) but no legislation has been enacted.

Congress also suggested that the National Research Council study the state of such databases in use in Maryland and New York.

Upon a preliminary review of the 300-page study, National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said, “We like what we have seen so far.”

The ATF did not return a call for comment, but a spokesman told the Associated Press the agency is in agreement that the idea for a national database should be further studied.

The study suggested alternative technologies to identify guns and ammunition used in crimes and its point of sale through microstamping — unique identifiers on gun parts, cartridge cases or bullets.

“A distinct advantage of microstamping is that the marks could be examined at a crime scene using equipment no more sophisticated than a magnifying glass, vastly simplifying and speeding up the process of developing investigative leads,” the report said.

However, the study warned that such technology may be susceptible to tampering.

The National Research Council of the National Academies provides scientific experts to conduct studies and advise the federal government.

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