Ballistic Imaging Easy To Defeat

NCPA Research Also Points to High Cost and Unreliability of Imaging Database

DALLAS (April 30, 2003) -- Current federal attempts to create a database of images of marks that guns make on bullets and cartridge cases won't work because there are too many inexpensive ways for criminals to defeat it, according to a report released today by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA).

The proposed ballistic imaging database would store digital photographs of marks made by individual guns that could then be matched against marks on shells and bullets recovered at crime scenes, a process that's often erroneously referred to as "ballistic fingerprinting."

"Only the bad guys will win if we rely on ballistic imaging to solve crimes," said H. Sterling Burnett, NCPA senior fellow and co-author of the report with David B. Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute. "The imaging database is unreliable and expensive, and will divert scarce resources from other, more productive crime-fighting programs."

"Criminals will quickly learn how to beat the system because bullet marks can easily be altered," Kopel added:

  • Barrel, ejector or firing pin markings can be changed with a steel brush, nail file or patch soaked in abrasives, such as toothpaste.
  • Markings also can be changed by shooting ammunition with dirt, grit or grinding power on it, or by polishing.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) has already built a national database of images of cartridge cases associated with crimes over the past decade. And gun control advocates are now proposing federal legislation requiring gun manufacturers to test fire and retain images made by all new guns on bullets.

They claim the bullet imaging database will solve more crimes. But ballistic imaging has been used in Maryland and New York for nearly two years and no crimes have been solved, which makes the proposed new database costly:

  • 166,672 bullets have been imaged in crime labs with only 264 matches - a success rate of 0.16 percent. The national database system examining cartridge cases fared little better - 1.25 percent.
  • The cost of equipping 206 crime labs for imaging is $250,000 per site; that's $195,000 per match and $51.5 million diverted from other crime programs.

The authors say ballistic imaging technology has many other obvious limitations. Gun models from the same manufacturer initially produce almost identical markings, and worn barrels can change a gun's "signature." So can replacement parts. And different brands of ammunition can vary. Finally, ballistic examiners' final judgments are subjective, unlike DNA matching which is objective.

The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the largest police organization in the U.S., also dismissed the creation of a ballistic imaging database: "Ballistic imaging is a massive waste of precious law enforcement resources. The national database is unreliable and results aren't objective."