(They left out the part where the Maryland SP lobbied to scrap their system as useless and referenced our COBIS farce during their testimony before the state legislature.)
State Police Sgt. Dennis Lyons hunched over the computer as images of two different handgun shell casings appeared on a monitor.
He pointed out the similarities in the rounded outer edge and center as he discussed how he was able to match a casing from a gun on file to one found at a crime scene. The comparison provided a vital lead in a homicide investigation by police in Utica.
He placed part of one image atop the other, showing how he concluded police needed to track down the gun whose shell casing matched the one from the Utica case.
Lyons was using a computerized gun casing database run by the federal government known as NIBIN, short for National Integrated Ballistics Information Network. It's one of two ballistics networks New York police officers use. The other is the Combined Ballistics Information System, called CoBIS.
Now the state is moving to create another firearms database, using a process known as microstamping, in which handgun firing pins are affixed with serial numbers that imprint on each round fired.
The databases have been criticized by gun rights advocates, who claim their use invades the privacy of law-abiding gun owners, drives up firearm prices and does little to solve or deter crimes.
CoBIS, in particular, has angered sportsmen groups in New York, with some arguing that the results of "gun fingerprinting" have not justified the millions of dollars spent on the 8-year-old program. The 2008 budget for CoBIS is about $1 million, according to the State Police.
One group, Orange County Shooters, has set up a Web site dedicated to criticizing CoBIS. The site points out that CoBIS has yielded only two matches, or "hits," of gun shell casings used in crimes, although more than 201,000 shell casings from guns have been entered into the database. The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association has also questioned the validity of the database.
The State Police have had better success with the NIBIN database, which is run by the FBI and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, comparing shell casings from New York crimes against casings in the much larger federal database.
As of June 1, State Police have had 258 matches when comparing casings found at New York crime scenes to those on file through NIBIN, said State Police Sgt. Kern Swoboda.
The officers who run CoBIS say they knew it would take time for it to become useful.
"I don't know of any law enforcement tool that's perfect," said Gerald Zeosky, a State Police staff inspector who is director of the State Police Forensic Identification Center. "Anything we can apply to reduce crime, we're in favor of."
The CoBIS and NIBIN offices sit on the first floor of the State Police Forensic Identification Center in Albany.
Envelopes and boxes full of brass gun "casings" -- the jackets that cover bullets before they are fired -- sit on desks as some of the five CoBIS employees in Albany catalogue them in the computer system.
There are also six other casing collection sites in State Police troops around the state.
The casings come from shots fired by handguns sold in New York. State law requires that each gun sold in the state be test-fired before being sold so a casing can be recorded.
The goal is to have a casing on record from each gun, so that the markings left behind by the firing pin, when the casing is ejected after a shot is fired, and from the gun's breech can be used for comparison to casings found at a crime scene.
When he signed the bill into law that created CoBIS, then-Gov. George Pataki praised "gun fingerprinting" as an important step in fighting crime. In addition to being able to compare casings from crime scenes, the database can be useful in tracing handguns whose serial numbers have been defaced, if those guns can be test-fired.
Since the program's inception, gunmakers have provided 201,269 casings (as of June 1) to the State Police.
Two matches -- both cases from Rochester, one a shooting where a person was injured, the other a case where no one was apparently injured -- have occurred through casing comparisons.
Hits aren't definite matches, but potential matches that can be investigated further.
"It just provides a lead," Zeosky said.
Detractors in New York and other states where gun fingerprinting has been enacted or debated have questioned the cost of the program. In addition to its $1 million annual budget, about $4 million was spent to set up CoBIS.
Tom King, director of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, called CoBIS a "waste of money" and said other states, including California, that have looked into similar programs have opted not to pursue them.
Maryland started a similar program the same year as New York, and its program has also been criticized as ineffective, King said, including by the Maryland State Police.
"Our position is we are in favor of anything that will help get criminals off the street, but CoBIS isn't one of them," King said.
What becomes of CoBIS if a bill requiring microstamping on guns becomes law remains to be seen.
With microstamping, gun manufacturers would be required to outfit every handgun's firing pin with a tiny serial number that would get stamped on each shell casing the gun fires. Microstamping could make the matching of shell casings obsolete.
Zeosky said he doesn't know what will happen to CoBIS, or to the CoBIS staff, if microstamping becomes law.
Zeosky and Swoboda said State Police believe CoBIS is on the cusp of becoming more useful as its database grows.
Zeosky said the technology used by CoBIS has improved, allowing for more details on casings to be recorded, which should make it more useful.
Swoboda said the number of casings in the database is approaching the level where the matches will become more numerous. When the database was established, he said, it was understood that it would take seven to 10 years for matches to become frequent, based on studies of how often guns change hands.
"Until we really built up the database, we knew it wasn't going to work," Swoboda said. "Right now we're at the cusp of that seven-year mark. We're definitely going to see results in the future."