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.


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 ballistic database.53

  • 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 maintain it?

The organization's statement declared:

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 spent elsewhere.

"Ballistic imaging technology cannot come remotely close to fulfilling the promises that gun control advocates make."

Ballistic imaging 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.54 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.

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