Ballistic Imaging: Not Ready for Prime Time

Policy Backgrounders | Crime

No. 160
Wednesday, April 30, 2003
by David B. Kopel, J.D., & H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D.


Introduction

Following 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 themselves.

"A ballistic image database would be unreliable and expensive, would solve few crimes and would divert scarce resources from other crime-fighting resources."

Gun 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.

This 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.


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