the sniper attacks that plagued Washington, D.C., Maryland
and Virginia in the early fall of 2002, gun control
advocates intensified their demands that the federal
government develop a "ballistic fingerprint"
database. Legislators in several states and in Congress,
including long-time gun control advocate Sen. Charles
Schumer (D.-N.Y.), have proposed bills requiring gun
manufacturers to test fire all new guns and to retain the
cartridge case and bullet images. Some proposals would
require manufacturers to supply the test information to a
central agency, such as a state bureau or the federal Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE), while
others would have manufacturers store and maintain the data
ballistic image database would be unreliable and
expensive, would solve few crimes and would divert
scarce resources from other crime-fighting
dealers, wholesalers and manufacturers keep sales records
and serial numbers pursuant to the Gun Control Act of 1968.
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. If
the initial purchaser had sold the gun - rather than losing
it to a thief - and remembered the second purchaser, the
police might have a lead.
system sounds good in theory. However, the best evidence is
that a ballistic image database would be unreliable and
expensive, would solve few crimes and would divert scarce
resources from other crime-fighting programs.
imaging captures and stores a digital photograph of the
striae (fine stripes) and other tiny marks on bullets and
cartridge cases. Some gun control advocates refer to
ballistic imaging as "ballistic fingerprinting,"
but this is misleading. Fingerprints are immutable.
Ballistic markings can be made by several parts of a gun;
they change over the life of a gun and can be easily altered
by the gun owner.
bullets used in rifles and handguns produce useful
Rifling.One way ballistic markings are created is by
the spiraling grooves, or rifling, cut into the inside of
the barrel of most rifles and handguns to make the bullet
spin. (Spinning stabilizes the bullet in flight so that it
travels a straighter path.) [See Figure
I.] The grooves and the raised surfaces between them,
called "lands," leave striae on the bullet.
Microscopic imperfections in the gun barrel increase with
wear and leave marks on the bullet.
Of course, if a bullet deforms or is otherwise damaged when
it hits a target, which often occurs, the ballistic images
are much more difficult to read.
Only bullets used in
rifles and handguns produce useful ballistic images.
Shotguns fire many small pellets at once. These pellets do
not expand to the diameter of the barrel and therefore are
not marked by it.
Left by Other Parts. An unfired cartridge consists of
a cartridge case that contains the bullet, the gunpowder and
a primer. When a shooter pulls the trigger, the firing pin
strikes the primer, starting the reaction that ignites the
gunpowder. The expanding gases created by the burning
gunpowder propel the bullet out of the cartridge case and
down the barrel. When the cartridge has been fired, marks
are left on the now-empty cartridge case and its spent
primer by the firing pin, the bolt breech face, and the
interior of the firing chamber. In semiautomatic guns, marks
also are left by the extractor that assists in removing the
expended case from the firing chamber and by the ejector
that expels the case from the gun.
Usually, no ejector
markings remain on guns that require the shooter to manually
remove the cartridge case; these include revolvers and
derringers, single-shot firearms, and double-barreled rifles
Semiautomatic guns automatically expel used cartridge cases,
which criminals often leave behind. They are much less
likely to leave their cartridge cases at the crime scene if
they have to remove them manually.
ballistic examiner must make the final judgment
regarding both bullets and cartridges"
Matching and the Ballistic Examiner.A ballistic
examiner must make the final judgment regarding both bullets
and cartridge cases.
His determination is subjective, based on his professional
experience - in contrast to DNA matching, which is
Computer ballistic image matches are not currently accepted
as evidence in court without a final judgment from a
The manual microscopic examination of several possible
matches can take several hours.
and Cartridge Casings. In contrast to bullets,
cartridge cases do not strike a target and thus are not
deformed by impact. Case imaging is much better than bullet
imaging at achieving "cold hits" - linking two
items not already suspected to be linked.
Cartridge case images change more slowly than do bullet
images as a result of normal gun use. Accordingly,
preliminary computer matches are easier to perform. Still, a
ballistic expert must examine the image and make a
Guns made by the Glock
Company and others produce quite distinctive impressions on
Other guns produce useless casing images. For example, the
markings on the cases of the tiny rimfire cartridges used in
.22 and .25 caliber guns are much less forensically useful.
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. The NIBIN is
accessible to 235 forensic laboratories throughout the
This system is sometimes useful to criminal investigators.
For example, if a firearm is recovered from a suspected
criminal's home, the NIBIN can sort through the ballistic
images of bullets found at recent crime scenes in the city.
If the NIBIN provides some close matches, a firearms
examiner can study the crime scene bullet and the recovered
gun to determine if the gun fired the bullet found at the
total of 166,672 bullet entries collected by labs,
queries to the bullet image produced only 264
Images. The test begins with a cartridge case or
bullet recovered from a crime scene or test fired from a gun
recovered from a suspect. The image of the cartridge case
and/or bullet is entered into the computer database; the
computer then compares the new images to its existing image
database. The database query produces a list of possible
"matches," giving them a "match score"
and ranking them in order of their similarity to the bullet
or cartridge case at issue. According to Frederic A.
Tulleners, Director of the California Bureau of Forensic
Services Laboratory, because "[a]utomated computer
matching systems do not provide conclusive results,"
the potential candidates must be "manually
reviewed" by an expert ballistics examiner.
Database Hits.The NIBIN Web site reports
"success stories" for its automated system in
suggesting preliminary matches. For the last quarter of
2002, NIBIN reported 10 cases in which NIBIN was used to
provide evidence against a particular criminal or to alert
investigators that a single perpetrator might have committed
two or more crimes.
Statistics about NIBIN's
performance thus far were released at the November 6, 2002,
meeting of the Southwest Association of Forensic Scientists
in Scottsdale, Ariz., based on data supplied by 206 labs
According to the statistics released:
Of a total of 166,672 bullet
entries collected by the labs, queries to the bullet
image database had produced 264 "hits." [See Figure
In other words, 0.16 percent of
the bullet entries were associated with a hit - a
confirmed link between two different bullets or between
a bullet and a gun. (No data were released on the number
of hits that led to solving a crime, making an arrest or
mounting a prosecution.)
The NIBIN system had 351,194
cartridge case entries and had produced 4,395 cartridge
case hits - a rate of 1.25 percent.
costs about $12,000 for a cartridge case hit and
about $195,000 for a buller hit."
Database Matching. These data illustrate that
cartridge case ballistic identification is much more
productive than bullet identification, although neither
system has a very high rate of ballistic matches. The data
also show that successful matches using the NIBIN system are
At a cost of about $250,000 per
site for equipment - not including operator training,
system maintenance and operator hours - the 206 labs had
spent about $51,500,000 for equipment acquisition.
Thus the equipment costs alone
have amounted to about $12,000 for a cartridge case hit
and about $195,000 for a bullet hit. [See Figure
The software currently
used by NIBIN is the Integrated Ballistic Identification
System (IBIS), manufactured by Forensic Technology, Inc., a
private company. At present, IBIS is the only relevant
However, a report commissioned by the California Attorney
General notes that "IBIS has not been designed for
operating with large databases such as the ballistic
with only a dozen bullets can not specify which
brand or model of firearm fired them."
Police sometimes suspect
that bullets found at two different crime scenes belong to a
single criminal. If so, the firearms examiner can compare
the bullets directly, without the NIBIN database. This is
what was done in the capital-area sniper case: firearms
examiners studied bullets from various murder scenes and
concluded that the bullets came from the same gun. When the
killers bragged in phone calls about a robbery-murder in
Alabama, bullets from an unsolved liquor store robbery in
that state were microscopically compared to the Maryland-D.C.-Virginia
bullets and found to match. The Maryland sniper case also
highlights the limitations of ballistic imaging:
investigators with only a dozen bullets were unable to
specify which brand or model of firearm had fired the
bullets. Indeed, the make and model of the firearm used by
the snipers was unknown until the suspects were captured
with the gun in their possession.
ballistic imaging is especially useful when a bullet or
cartridge case must be searched against a small comparison
set - such as the "open case files" of unsolved
crimes in a particular city. For this reason, overly large
databases can actually be a hindrance, as we detail below.
Currently, the NIBIN databases being created by local
forensics labs contain only images of bullets or cartridge
cases found at crime scenes or bullet/cartridge images
created from test firing guns seized from criminals.
The current selectivity
creates a high concentration of guns likely to be involved
in unsolved crimes. A database that also included guns
belonging to law-abiding citizens would be orders of
magnitude larger and would produce many more false
positives, which firearms examiners would have to spend many
Databases. Any imaging database of new guns would be
incomplete for whole classes of firearms, including shotguns
and revolvers, that might be used in crimes.
The databases also would be incomplete because they would
not include ballistic images for the estimated
200-million-plus guns privately owned in the United States.
Costs, time constraints and privacy concerns have made
retroactive gathering of ballistic data on existing guns
impractical at present. Also, ballistic traces would be of
very limited use if the gun matched to a crime had been
sold, traded or stolen.
Ballistic imaging has
obvious limitations that become more significant when we
consider image databases containing all guns, or all new
guns, rather than only criminal guns. Even when limited to
new guns, the usefulness of an immense database as a crime
fighting tool is questionable for a number of reasons.
caused by the friction of bullets traveling down a
gun's barrel will change its 'signature.'"
Marks. Initially, all guns of the same model from the
same manufacturer will produce similar marks; guns produced
by the very same equipment (perhaps only minutes apart) will
be especially similar.
This means that even the best search algorithm will develop
relatively long lists of "possible" guns that need
to be test fired so the bullets and cartridge cases can be
microscopically compared to the evidence.
Barrels. Over time, wear caused by the friction of
bullets traveling down a gun's barrel will change the
barrel's "signature," producing different
ballistic images for bullets fired when the gun was new and
those fired later.
A barrel's ballistic
signature often changes much more rapidly when the barrel is
new; after use, the barrel stabilizes. Sometimes the
five-thousandth bullet fired through a gun will match the
first; at other times, consecutively fired bullets will not
This is especially true for firearms that are used with
high-powered magnum ammunition. Maryland and New York
currently require the collection of ballistic images from
new guns. The images from these guns may be significantly
different from the images produced once the gun stabilizes.
Inexpensive guns, which
are made from softer metals, wear more quickly. How often a
gun is cleaned also affects the rate of change of the
Parts. Replacing parts of the gun may change the
ballistic image. A basic part of a gun is the receiver or
frame from which the barrel, stock and other parts may be
detached. Receivers have serial numbers and are generally
regulated the same as complete firearms. However, many gun
parts do not have identifying serial numbers, although
replacing them changes the ballistic images the firearm
It is common, especially among
shooting sports competitors, to replace a gun's barrel,
firing pin or ejector.
Gun barrels, triggers, grips and
other replacement parts do not have serial numbers and
are not regulated the same as complete firearms.
To make a comprehensive
ballistic registry work, all barrels, slides, extractors
and firing pins would have to be serialized and
regulated as if they were complete firearms.
in Ammunition. Ammunition of the same caliber leaves
significantly different markings:
Reloaded Ammunition. Cartridge
cases often are recycled. Empty cases "reloaded"
with a new bullet and gunpowder are less expensive than new
ammunition. Many target shooters save money by reloading
their own ammunition from kits; other shooters purchase
reloaded ammunition at stores or gun shows. Reloaded
ammunition often ends up being fired through a number of
different firearms. In such cases, purchasers of reloaded
ammunition possess cartridges with markings from many
different guns; these markings then combine with the
markings from the purchaser's own guns as he or she fires
the reloaded ammunition. Other Ways
of Altering Ballistic Images. Ballistic markings can be
varied in other ways:
Firing different ammunition from
different manufacturers may vary the marks from the same
Using frangible ammunition,
which shatters into many small pieces on impact, also
defeats ballistic identification.
The markings on a barrel,
ejector or firing pin can be changed 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.
Even putting toothpaste on a
cartridge before firing may change its ballistic image.
gun's ballistic image can be altered repeatedly
after crimes are committed."
Serial Numbers. It is already common for criminals,
especially black-market firearms dealers, to destroy 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 -
all of which are considerably easier and less obvious than
removing a gun's serial numbers. A gun's ballistic image can
be altered at leisure and altered repeatedly after crimes
are committed. For example, it takes about five minutes to
lightly file a gun's firing pin and breech face signature to
make the cartridge unrecognizable by IBIS.
Not all alterations succeed, of course, just as not all
attempts to file off a serial number completely obliterate
Once fingerprinting was
invented and popularized, many criminals adapted by wearing
gloves - even though gloves reduce manual dexterity and may
look conspicuous. Today, some rapists wear condoms to avoid
DNA identification. In Boston, where BATFE and the police
have aggressively sought to match crime scene cartridge
cases with guns recovered from criminals, preliminary
evidence suggests that some criminals have switched from
semiautomatic pistols to revolvers, which do not leave
of the King Assassination Gun. It is true that some
criminals would be too careless to conceal ballistic images,
but even when no efforts at concealment are made, ballistic
images can change rapidly. For example, in 1997 the family
of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. filed a lawsuit over
what it believed to be a cover-up of the circumstances of
the 1968 assassination. At the direction of a court, a
select group of forensics experts fired 18 rounds through
the almost-unused Remington rifle the FBI said was the
murder weapon. Not only did none of the 18 bullets from the
rifle match the bullet that killed Dr. King, none of the
bullets matched each other. "Every test bullet was
different because it was going over [copper] plating created
by the previous bullet," explained a retired
Connecticut police forensic examiner who served on the team.
The most extensive
examination so far of the accuracy of ballistic matching
found that the number of possible matches in a comprehensive
database would be so large as to require a substantial
diversion of police resources from other, more productive
California Department of Forensic Services Study. An
October 2001 study for the California Department of Forensic
Services concluded that an imaging database for new handguns
would be unmanageably large:
When applying this
technology to the concept of mass sampling of manufactured
firearms, a huge inventory of potential candidates will be
generated for manual review. This study indicates that
this number of candidate cases will be so large as to be
impractical and will likely create logistic complications
so great that they cannot be effectively addressed.
California Department of Forensic Services concluded
that an imaging database for new handguns would be
Led by Frederick
the California researchers conducted tests to gauge the
accuracy of ballistic imaging. The first test fired two
rounds of Federal-brand ammunition from 792 Smith &
Wesson Model 4006 .40 caliber semiautomatic pistols.
The ballistic image of one test fired cartridge case from
each of the 792 guns was entered into an IBIS database.
From among the second set
of test fired cartridges, 50 cases were randomly selected
and imaged. These images were run through the database to
look for matches. A suggested match was considered a success
if the IBIS computer listed the parent gun of the cartridge
case in the database among the top 15 most likely guns for
the leftover case.
As mentioned previously,
various parts of a firearm may mark the cartridge casing and
bullet, but for automated imaging only the firing pin
impressions, breech face marks and ejector marks are used.
The computer failed to suggest
any top 15 match in 38 percent of the test runs.
At least one correct match was
indicated for markings on cartridge cases from either
the firing pin or the breech face in the remaining 62
percent of the tests.
- In 48 percent of those tests in
which IBIS suggested a correct match, the correct gun
was in the top 15 suggested matches based on a
distinguishing characteristic created by both the breech
face and the firing pin.
test had poor computer match rate with less than 800
handguns in a test database."
In other words, in this
very limited test, distinguishing characteristics from more
than one part of a firearm were matched and listed in the
top 15 suggested matches less than one-third of the time.
This is a problem because expert ballistic examiners are
relatively scarce and their limited time is valuable. Their
talents are called upon only after the computer-imaging
database has found a reasonable likelihood of a match -
usually a top 10 match on more than one characteristic. The
more matching marks, the more likely that a ballistic
examiner will conduct a final comparison. In the real world,
it would not be surprising to find that ballistic examiners
did not as a rule even bother to inspect cartridges for
comparison when a computer did not find at least two or more
matching characteristics between casings.
A second test used 22
Smith & Wesson pistols, firing one shot using each of
five different brands of ammunition. (The brands used were
PMC-Eldorado, CORBON, ARMSCOR, Remington and Winchester.)
Seventy-two of these cartridge cases were then tested
against the ballistic database that had been constructed
using Federal ammunition.
- On this test, only 11 percent of
the computer tests put the correct gun in the top 15 for
both breech face and firing pin images.
- Thirty-eight percent of the tests
put the correct gun in the top 15 for breech face or
firing pin images.
The second test
illustrated the tremendous degradation in ballistic imaging
accuracy when the recovered test cartridge comes from a
different manufacturer than the cartridge in the database.
The failure rate might
have been even greater if the California researchers had not
used looser "success" criteria than ballistic
examiners actually do. Ordinarily, examiners limit their
search for a ballistic match to the top 10 ranking cartridge
Examiners then visually compare those 10 cases. Below the
top 10, ballistic researchers generally find the odds of
matching a case do not warrant the time and resources
required. However, the California study counted as a
"success" any ballistic identification that was
ranked among the top 15 matches.
Notably, the testing was conducted on cartridge casings -
since "fired cartridge casings are much easier to
correlate than fired bullets."
The California test had a
dismal computer match rate with fewer than 800 handguns in
its test database. The report explained that if the number
of database records were a hundred thousand (one year after
database implementation) or a million (after a decade), the
computer matching rate would be much lower.
In contrast to NIBIN,
which focuses on crime guns, comprehensive ballistic imaging
would likely produce so many "hits" it would
create a database of potential "suspect" guns so
large as to be useless to forensic examiners.
That markings change over
time also is a problem. Even the limited success with
computer matching was achieved by matching cases used in a
gun at nearly the same time. The report cautioned:
"Firearms that generate markings on cartridge casings
can change with use and can also be readily altered by the
user. They are not permanently defined identifiers like
fingerprints or DNA."
And of course fingerprints and DNA are permanently
associated with only one individual; consumer goods like
firearms are not.
ballistic imaging database of all handguns would
cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require an
enormous number of personnel."
As the report from
California details, a ballistic imaging database of all
guns, or of all new handguns, would require substantial
funding and an enormous number of personnel. At the federal
level, the BATFE would have to receive significant increases
in funding and staff to create and maintain such a database.
This funding increase could come from a number of sources,
none of which seems politically palatable. These include
cutting the budgets of other programs and shifting the
savings to the BATFE, substantially increasing taxes or fees
on firearms or ammunition and dedicating the revenue to the
BATFE database, or increasing deficit spending.
Criticism of the California Study.A May 2002 BATFE
report criticized the California study, in large part
because Federal-brand ammunition was used.
BATFE argued that other ammunition would produce better
results: "The bearing surface of the bullet metal and
case primer could not be too hard to get good consistent
detail for correlations and later visual examination, yet
the ammunition components could not be too soft, as that
effect would give the correlation search a different
benchmark to be compared against."
In other words, BATFE argued that ballistic imaging studies
should be performed under a Goldilocks standard, with test
ammunition neither too hard nor too soft. However, criminal
shootings rarely occur under controlled laboratory
Indeed, the Federal
ammunition used in the California study is one of the three
most popular brands sold in the United States and thus seems
as likely as others to be used in a crime.
If the California study
was flawed, the flaw was that it made matches much easier to
achieve than they would be in real-world conditions. The
study involved a much smaller number and variety of gun
models than would be registered in an all-encompassing
database. In addition, the guns used were all new, lacking
the diverse histories of use and firing conditions that
would have changed their ballistic images over time. Getting
useful results from a real-world database containing
lawfully owned guns discovered at or near crime scenes would
present immense difficulties, much greater than either the
California tests suggest or than would be possible under the
A further evaluation
ordered by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer found
BATFE's complaints meritless and concluded that the original
California study was correct.
Review of the California Study.After the California
study reported dismal prospects for ballistic imaging of
noncrime guns, Attorney General Lockyer ordered an
evaluation of the study by Dr. Jan De Kinder, head of the
Ballistics Section of the National Institute for Forensic
Sciences in the Belgian Department of Justice. The De Kinder
report was released in January 2003.
The evaluation examined the California test of 50 random
cartridge cases (of a single brand) and the separate test
for various brands of ammunition. De Kinder stated: "I
fully agree with the analysis of the data as it was
the number of firearms in the database is increased,
the results worsen considerably."
As De Kinder explained,
"For the system to be successful, the correct gun
should be listed in the top few ranks."
For the Federal ammunition, the tests had found that 38
percent of the pistols did not even achieve a place in the
top 15 ranks; IBIS incorrectly predicted that at least 15
other guns were more closely matched with a particular
cartridge case than was the gun from which the cartridge
case was actually fired.
The California test using
a variety of ammunition brands had achieved even worse
results, with 62 percent of pistols not placed in the top 15
ranks in either breech face imaging or firing pin imaging.
De Kinder commented: "[T]he trends in the obtained
results show that the situation worsens as the number of
firearms in the database is increased."
This is precisely why collecting ballistic images for guns
not associated with crimes - such as all new guns or all new
handguns - would make current ballistic imaging programs
much less effective.
BATFE had criticized the
California study because it used Federal cartridges, rather
than Remington; BATFE claimed that Federal primers are too
hard, and thus do not mark well. De Kinder explained that
Federal primers are actually significantly softer than
Remington's, and indeed are the softest of seven different
brands of ammunition tested by Erich Randich of Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory.
De Kinder further noted
that BATFE had previously used Federal ammunition in its own
protocol testing.47 The manufacturer of IBIS, Forensic
Technologies, Inc. (FTI), had argued that results from eight
of the 50 cartridges should be ignored, since those
cartridges did not match their parent gun even when
carefully studied by a firearms examiner. De Kinder replied:
"FTI proposed to remove them from the statistics to
achieve better results. This is unacceptable…all data
points have to be taken into consideration."
De Kinder's agreement
with the California study was conclusive: "As
progressively larger numbers of similarly produced firearms
are entered into the database, images with similar
signatures should be expected that would make it more
difficult to find a link. Therefore, this increase in
database size does not necessarily translate to more
In other words,
collecting ballistic images from guns not involved in crime
(such as all new guns) would degrade existing ballistic
imaging forensic efforts. The existing city-based databases
of crime-related ballistic images would be flooded with
orders of magnitude more images from ordinary firearms
sales. This flood of additional data would seriously impair
the ability of the NIBIN to produce "cold hits"
linking a bullet or cartridge case to a gun owned by a
criminal who was not a suspect in the crime where the bullet
or cartridge case was found.
and New York Databases. 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.
Gun buyers are charged $20 per gun for this system, and the
state government has so far spent $5 million on it. The
database now includes images from over 17,000 guns. The
program has been used 155 times by investigators and has not
solved a single violent crime - even though the database
comprises new handguns, which are more likely to be used in
a crime than are older handguns, rifles or shotguns. The
database did help identify two stolen handguns.
The Maryland State Police
spent $1.1 million to purchase the Integrated Ballistic
Identification System (IBIS) software to run its database.
The $1 million that paid for IBIS was cut from
ballistic database has images from over 17,000 guns
and has been used 155 times by investigators, but
has not solved a single violent crime."
The warranty on IBIS
costs $150,000 per year. Seventeen people have been hired to
administer the system at an annual cost of about $643,000,
while annual operating costs are about $112,000. Meanwhile,
the Maryland government 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 Maryland law has been
quite effective in suppressing firearms sales. For example,
the Thompson/Center Encore is a custom pistol for which the
buyer can choose from a variety of calibers and barrels. The
gun is shipped to the dealer without a barrel, so the gun
cannot be test-fired at the factory and therefore cannot be
sold in Maryland - even though this high-quality single-shot
pistol costs over $500 and is virtually never used in
New York initiated its
own statewide ballistic database program for law-abiding gun
owners in March 2001 for a startup price of $4.5 million.
Thus far, not a single case has been prosecuted in New York
as a result.
As of November 2002, the system had yet to produce a single
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 (FOP), the largest police organization in the United
States, stated that two questions must be answered before
substantial resources are devoted to the creation of a
- First, since ballistic imprints,
unlike fingerprints and DNA, can be altered, either
deliberately or through normal use, how would the
validity of the findings be ensured?
- Second, how would such a database
be compiled and what would be the cost to create and
FOP does not support any federal
requirement to register privately owned firearms with the
government. Without federally mandated registration of the
more than 200 million firearms in the U.S. today, such a
database would be no more effective than the current NIBIN
maintained by BATFE. And even if such a database is
limited to firearms manufactured in the future, the cost
to create and maintain such a system, with such small
chances it would be used to solve a firearms crime,
suggests to FOP these are law enforcement dollars best
imaging technology cannot come remotely close to
fulfilling the promises that gun control advocates
technology cannot come remotely close to fulfilling the
promises that gun control advocates make. To require
ballistic registration of all new guns would most likely
waste massive law enforcement resources. A company named
NanoVia says it is developing what may one day be a
realistic alternative: a micro device that stamps a tiny
imprint of the gun's serial number onto every cartridge
case.Such a device might one day be a useful forensic tool.
For now, ballistic imaging mandates for noncrime guns would
only hinder effective law enforcement.
David B. Kopel,
J.D., is research director of the Independence Institute and
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is a senior fellow with the
National Center for Policy Analysis. NOTE:
Nothing written here should be construed as necessarily
reflecting the views of the National Center for Policy
Analysis or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of
any bill before Congress.