NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Why Ballistic Imaging Doesn't Work

May 7, 2003

After the fall 2002 sniper attacks, there were louder calls for the federal government to develop a "ballistic fingerprint" database. This would require gun manufacturers to test fire new guns, record the cartridge case and bullet images and supply the test information to a central agency, such as the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE).

If a cartridge case or bullet was found at a crime scene and a computer matched it to a particular gun, law enforcement officials might be able to track the gun from the manufacturer to the initial purchaser. If the purchaser was the criminal, the crime would be solved.

However, the term "ballistic fingerprinting" is misleading. Unlike fingerprints, ballistic markings can be easily altered and naturally change over time. Over the last decade, the BATFE built a database of ballistic images from bullets and cases associated with crimes. The results:

  • Of a total of 166,672 bullet entries, queries to the BATFE database produced 264 "hits" -- about a 0.16 percent match rate.
  • And of the 351,194 cartridge case entries only 4,395 cartridge matches were found -- a rate of 1.25 percent.

This database contains only images of bullets or cartridge cases found at crime scenes or from guns seized from criminals. The problems caused by creating databases of guns owned by law-abiding citizens are illustrated by the experience of Maryland and New York.

A 2000 Maryland law requires that images of test-fired cartridge cases for every new handgun sold be added to the state's ballistic database. New York instituted its own database in 2001. The databases have yet to solve a single violent crime in either state. Indeed, as of November 2002, New York's system had yet to produce a single match.

Source: H. Sterling Burnett (NCPA senior fellow), "Ballistic imaging: Not ready for prime time," Washington Times, May 7, 2003.

For NCPA Ballistic Imaging Study


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