Why ballistic fingerprinting is not an effective crime tool
by Larry Pratt
After a killing spree in the national capital area, gun haters are once again using the Beltway shootings as an excuse for more gun control.
USA Today.*1 The New York Times.*2 Various syndicated columnists. They're all jumping on the gun control bandwagon. This should be no surprise, for gun control advocates feel that restrictions on firearms are the cure for all of societies' ills: from stopping murderers to curing the common cold.
Remember how Mayor David Dinkins responded to the stabbing murder of a Utah tourist on the New York City subway in 1990? In a subsequent press conference, Mayor Dinkins said that the stabbing (with a knife) proved that we needed more gun control, such as a national waiting period on firearm purchases!*3
Well, the latest weapon in the gun hater's arsenal is the registration of firearms. Specifically, they want to register the unique "ballistic fingerprint" that each firearm leaves on a bullet or cartridge case after it is fired, and trace it back to the original buyer of the gun.
Ballistic fingerprinting will hardly ever solve a crime, but it will accomplish something else - a gun registry tied to the owners of the guns.
Technical problems with ballistic fingerprinting
Ballistic fingerprinting will not work for a number of reasons. Probably foremost is that crooks do not use valid IDs to buy guns in stores. According to the Carter Justice Department study done by Drs. Wright and Rossi, crooks usually do not leave a paper trail when buying guns.*4 That means that the evidence chain will rarely ever connect back to the crook.
To state the obvious, criminals can steal their guns from their victims, or they can borrow or rent them from fellow crooks.
Even when they get their weapons from gun stores, they can use fake IDs or straw purchasers to complete the sale.
The General Accounting Office issued a report in 2001 which shows how investigators were able to purchase guns using fake IDs every time they tried.*5 Of course, this suggests that criminals can also get their firearms from gun stores - even while submitting to the background check.
All the evidence to date suggests that criminals will easily be able to get around a registration scheme that traces ballistic evidence at a crime scene back to the person who originally bought the firearm.
Maryland registers the ballistic fingerprints of every new handgun sold in the state. To date - despite the fact that thousands of ballistic fingerprints have been registered with the state police - not one crime has yet been solved with this technology.*6
New York has registered more than 29,000 ballistic fingerprints, and, once again, not one bad guy has been taken off the street using this scheme.*7
Most criminals aren't stupid enough to buy a gun using their real name. That is why Maryland and New York are having such a difficult time tracing ballistic evidence from the crime scene to the criminal who used the weapon.
Ballistic fingerprints can change
But won't ballistic fingerprinting help us catch those "stupid criminals" that buy a firearm from a gun store using their real name?
Well, not really. Unlike the human hand, there are many ways to change the ballistic fingerprints that a particular gun leaves. The signature can be changed with numerous firings of the gun. The changes are most pronounced when the gun is new. Moreover, it is not difficult to intentionally disfigure the lands and groves in the barrel to change the signature.
Barrels and firing pins can also be replaced, creating a brand new signature that does not exist in anybody's data base.
Nevertheless, gun banners always fall back on one last argument when shown that their ideas won't work. You've probably heard it before: "What if it helps save one life or helps solve one crime?"
Register guns if it helps stop one crook?
This is a pernicious argument, for there are many things that could be done which could arguably help "save one life." We could institute a national curfew. We could videotape every person's movements to and from his house. We could allow government officials to eavesdrop on every conversation a person makes, whether on the phone, at their home, or on the computer. (Wouldn't this help government officials stop crimes before they are committed?)
Better yet, what if the government banned all types of cars, vans and trucks? Wouldn't that prevent killers like the Beltway sniper from using a getaway car? If only the police were allowed to drive cars, then snipers would have to escape on foot, greatly increasing the chances that they would be caught.
In short, there are a lot of things that might actually help police catch crooks. We could throw out the Bill of Rights, for that document represents a host of limitations and hurdles that makes it difficult for government officials to nab bad guys.
But at what cost? The Bill of Rights is premised upon the fact that we can't always trust the government to do what's lawful. If we start slicing up that important document in the name of controlling crime, decent Americans will have exchanged their freedom for a false sense of security.
And to be sure, gun registration will not bring security. Registration has been used in other countries, and in this country as well, to help police confiscate firearms from law-abiding gun owners - a result which, in the long run, will actually make people less safe.
Registration often leads to confiscation
Consider what happened in New York City. For 25 years all rifles and shotguns were registered. The city's politicians insisted that crime fighting, not confiscation, was the goal. Then, the law was changed and many of the previously legal guns were on the prohibited list. Those that were not surrendered were confiscated during raids on owners' homes using the registration lists.*8
Guns are used in this country 60 times more often to defend life than to take life.*9 No doubt, confiscating firearms will take away people's best ability to protect themselves and their families.
It is ironic that many of these same gun haters who want to trust the government with the names of gun owners, are themselves paranoid about government excesses in other areas.
Opposition to registration is hardly the paranoia that gun control supporters want people to believe. Often these same gun control advocates are (rightly) suspicious of the government when Fourth Amendment rights, rather than Second Amendment rights, are involved.
Many pro-gun control civil libertarians (rightly) opposed the PATRIOT Act and John Ashcroft's inability to limit his actions within constitutional boundaries. They do not call themselves paranoid when opposing the PATRIOT Act which authorizes massive invasions of personal privacy, but inconsistently label gun owners as paranoid for opposing gun registration.
Some proponents who want to keep a registry of bullet signatures insist that this is not gun control, just a crime tool. If you study the debates over every piece of gun control legislation in the past, you will find the same argument being made. Gun control has always been advanced as more crime control.
England used registration to ban guns. Now, according to a 2002 UN study, England is the most violent of the 18 leading industrial countries.*10 If a ban on an island has failed to control crime, what makes us think that any measure short of a ban will do any better here?
The bottom line is that gun registration will actually make people less safe. Every day, guns in private hands are used almost 7,000 times in self-defence.*11 Setting up a registration system, such as New York City has, only brings us closer to the day when the government takes away those very guns which people so successfully use to protect themselves and their families.
*1 "Sniper attacks expose need for better gun-tracking tools," USA Today (October 7, 2002).
*2 Fox Butterfield, "Law Bars a National System for Tracing Bullets and Shells," New York Times (October 7, 2002).
*3 David B. Kopel, Guns: Who Should Have Them? (1995), p. 88.
*4 James D. Wright and Peter H. Rossi, U.S., Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, "The Armed Criminal in America: A Survey of Incarcerated Felons," Research Report (July 1985), pp. 35-36.
*5 General Accounting Office, Firearms Purchased From Federal Firearm Licensees Using Bogus Identification (March 2001).
*6 According to Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley, approximately 17,000 shell casings have been recorded under the state ballistic fingerprint law. Despite the fact that this law has been in effect since October 2000, not one criminal has yet to be arrested and convicted as a result.
*7 These figures were provided by a reliable New York State Police source familiar with this program, but who asked that his name be kept anonymous.
*8 In 1992, a New York City paper reported that, "Police raided the home of a Staten Island man who refused to comply with the city's tough ban on assault weapons, and seized an arsenal of firearms.... Spot checks are planned [for other homes]." John Marzulli, "Weapons ban defied: S.I. man, arsenal seized," Daily News (September 5, 1992).
*9 According to criminologist Gary Kleck of Florida State University, law-abiding citizens use guns to defend themselves against criminals as many as 2.5 million times every year. According to the National Safety Council, the total number of gun deaths (by accidents, suicides and homicides) account for less than 40,000 deaths per year. This means that each year, firearms are used more than 60 times more often to protect the lives of honest citizens than to take lives. [See Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz, "Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defence With a Gun," 86 The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Northwestern University School of Law, 1 (Fall 1995):164; and Injury Facts, published yearly by the National Safety Council, Itasca, Illinois.]
*10 Sophie Goodchild, "Britain is now the crime capital of the West," Independent (July 14, 2002).
*11 Kleck and Gertz, "Armed Resistance to Crime," p. 164.