NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Going Ballistic Over Tracing Bullets

October 17, 2002

The Washington, D.C., area sniper attacks have renewed interest in so-called "ballistics imaging." A national "gun fingerprint" database could be constructed if gun manufacturers were required to submit a spent shell casing from each new gun. Each gun leaves distinct markings that could be matched against the database and enable police to trace guns used in crimes.

But according to the Wall Street Journal:

  • In New York and Maryland, which already have ballistics-fingerprinting laws, more than 17,000 shell casings have been compiled over two years, producing two matches, no convictions, and no crimes prevented or solved.
  • On the other hand, there are limited ballistics databases of guns seized by police, says the New York Times, used in more than 200 jurisdictions that participate in the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, and in more than two dozen foreign countries.
  • In May, says the Times, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) declared that "numerous violent crimes involving firearms have been solved through use of the system."

Manufacturers typically test-fire guns; but the problem, says the WSJ, is that casing marks produced by firing a new gun can differ significantly from later firings due to normal wear and tear. And altering the markings is a "relatively easy affair" that "required less than five minutes of labor."

The most comprehensive ballistics study, conducted last year by the California Department of Justice, found that the number of potential matches generated that would require manual review "will be so large as to be impractical and will likely create logistic complications so great that they cannot be effectively addressed."

Finally, a central ballistics database would only help track a gun to its original owner, whereas the overwhelming majority of criminals use stolen guns.

Source: Editorial, "The Gun Fear Factor," Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2002; Editorial, "A Way to Trace Bullets," New York Times, October 17, 2002.

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