NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Ballistic Imaging Shoots a Blank

April 30, 2003

Following the sniper attacks that plagued the Beltway in the early fall of 2002, gun control advocates intensified their demands that the federal government develop a "ballistic fingerprint" database, one that would capture and store a digital photograph of the markings and striations on bullets and cartridge cases after they have been fired.

This system sounds good in theory, however the best evidence is that such a system would be unreliable and expensive, solve few crimes and divert scarce crime-fighting resources, say researchers David B. Kopel and H. Sterling Burnett.

Ballistic imaging has obvious limitations that become more significant when considering image databases containing all guns, or all new guns, rather than only criminal guns. Even when limited to new guns, the usefulness of an immense database as a crime fighting tool is questionable for a number of reasons, say the researchers:

  • Over time, wear caused by the friction of bullets traveling down a gun's barrel will change the barrel's "signature," producing different ballistic images for bullets fired when the gun was new and those fired later.
  • A gun's ballistic image can be altered repeatedly after crimes are committed by filing, shooting ammunition with dirt or even putting toothpaste on a cartridge before firing.
  • As the number of firearms in the database is increased, the results worsen considerably.
  • A ballistic imaging database of all guns, or of all new handguns, would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require an enormous number of personnel.

Ballistic imaging technology cannot come remotely close to fulfilling the promises that gun control advocates make. Ballistic mandates for non-crime guns would only hinder effective law enforcement, explain the researchers.

Source: David B. Kopel and H. Sterling Burnett, "Ballistic Imaging: Not Ready for Prime Time," Policy Backgrounder No. 160, April 30, 2003, National Center for Policy Analysis.

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