'Ballistic fingerprinting' won't stop violent crime

Posted: Wednesday, October 23, 2002

The serial sniper attacks around the Capital Beltway and Richmond, Va., have elicited a predictable Pavlovian response from those who believe there was never a violent crime another gun-control law couldn't have prevented.

The solution du jour is so-called "ballistic fingerprinting," in which gun manufacturers would be required to provide police with a shell casing that had been fired from every new weapon before it is sold. The unique, microscopic markings ("fingerprints") made by each gun barrel on a shell would become part of a database that, theoretically, would allow law-enforcement officials to trace guns used in crimes.

The key word there is "theoretically." Even if proponents could allay fears that such a process would create a national registry of firearms that could infringe on gun owners' rights, they still face huge practical and logistical hurdles.

The biggest weakness in ballistic fingerprinting is the fact that barrel characteristics can be easily modified. Jamming a cleaning rod down a gun barrel in a forceful way can alter the grooves enough to make it impossible to match casings. A person with rudimentary gunsmithing knowledge and basic tools (such as a file) could make even greater alterations; enthusiasts can even change the caliber of their weapons.

It's not hard to imagine these skills flourishing as a logical criminal response to national ballistic fingerprinting.

Besides, unlike with DNA evidence and actual fingerprints, normal wear and tear changes gun barrels. Bullets leave metal residue on the inside of barrels as they pass through, altering the factory characteristics.

This dilemma was illustrated in 1997, when ballistics experts examined the rifle believed to have been used to assassinate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Eighteen test firings produced 18 bullets, each with different types of markings. None could be matched to the bullet that killed Mr. King.

Then there's the problem of finding the weapon's owner. A central database would lead investigators to the gun's original owner, who likely purchased it legally and therefore is unlikely to have committed a crime with it. Indeed, the vast majority of gun crimes involve stolen or second- and third-hand weapons that are most difficult to trace.

Ballistic fingerprinting would be a logistical nightmare. There already are more than 200 million firearms in the United States, but national ballistic testing would begin only on the next batch off the assembly line, giving criminals a hefty stockpile of weapons outside the database.

The costs of test-firing every new gun to record its ballistic fingerprint would be staggering on a national level. Maryland alone spent $1.1 million to implement its program, and that's a small state whose fingerprinting law is limited only to handguns. Cost estimates of a national program range from $1 billion and beyond.

If the process were effective, it might be worth it. But the most comprehensive study of ballistic fingerprinting suggests otherwise. The California Department of Justice last year concluded that the larger the database, the greater the difficulty in identifying ballistic matches. The process has yet to help convict a criminal in Maryland, despite the fact it has tested 17,000 handguns since January 2000.

The idea of ballistic fingerprinting holds emotional appeal, but it simply is an impractical and ineffective method of fighting crime. Proponents would have more success if they took aim at rigorously enforcing the myriad gun laws already on the books, instead of enacting a costly new one with dubious potential.

-- Savannah Morning News

Oct. 22

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