Ballistics Fingerprinting: A Lifesaver

The Beltway sniper case shows that matching a bullet to a gun helps police track a killer. A national ballistics database should come next

By Lorraine Woellert

Now that police have arrested two men in connection with the Beltway sniper case, the encouraging news doesn't stop there. In investigating this horrible shooting spree, police made good use of an important tool: The tell-tale scratches left on a bullet as it's fired from a gun barrel. These marks can help trace weapons used in crimes, providing crucial clues for law enforcement. This is known as ballistics fingerprinting. It works, and it should now be adopted on a national scale.

On the night of Oct. 24, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms delivered the news: Tests on the Bushmaster .223 rifle removed from the suspects' car revealed the tell-tale ballistics markings found on bullets recovered in 11 of the 13 shootings. With this evidence, law enforcement has solid grounds for a prosecution.

Given this track record, it should now be more widely adopted by law enforcement, and it will work best if the U.S. creates a nationwide database of bullets and shell casings that could be scanned by a computer for matches with evidence found at crime scenes. Ballistic fingerprinting won't inconvenience gun owners -- unless they commit a crime. Nor will it break the bank (for another point of view, see "Ballistics Fingerprinting: A Waste of Time").


  Since 1968, every gun manufactured has carried a serial number. When a gun is sold, its serial number is entered into a database maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms in West Virginia. So why not take that system one step further, and have the capability to match every used bullet to a gun?

Plenty of good reasons exist to implement the system: Cops might catch more crooks, for one. Law enforcement in Los Angeles County learned that in August, after several armed robberies across the region. Police in several local jurisdictions had been working with the ATF on a new program to collect ballistics evidence from guns used in crimes. When the armed robber crossed jurisdictional lines, broke into a restaurant, and was caught, the region's ballistics database was able to match his gun to a string of robberies across the area, leading to a conviction.

The L.A. program, which has spawned counterparts in 40 states, has cost the ATF a mere $106 million since its rollout seven years ago. That's not much, even in this economy.


  Sure, the cost will go up as the system is adapted to accommodate ballistics markings from all guns, not just those used in crimes. And yes, localities will have to pony up for the technology to talk to the central database. But Maryland should be applauded for passing a law in 2000 requiring that ballistic fingerprints be stored for every new gun sold in the state. The startup cost: $5 million. It's not that much compared with its possible benefits.

California will consider a similar program next year. To fund it, advocates suggest tacking $5 to the $14 fee that gun buyers already pay for the obligatory criminal-background check. And gun manufacturers aren't complaining -- one, Glock, is even set to begin a pilot program to catalog the ballistics markings from every new firearm it sells. Thanks to Maryland's law, plus a similar one in New York, gunmakers already are packaging spent shells with the guns they ship to dealers. Dealers forward those to the state, along with information about the make and model of the gun, its serial number, and the purchaser.

The ATF's pilot program proves the technology works. Just like with a fingerprint, a gun couldn't be linked to a bullet without several ballistic matching points. Few people complain about being fingerprinted anymore. After all, it helps trace missing children and provides a record for police in case harm comes to you. It's a public-safety tool, and so is ballistics fingerprinting.


  The National Rifle Assn. claims that this strategy is impractical. It's true, all ballistic-fingerprinting files would have to be stored in a national database, which opponents see as a possible infringement of civil liberties. And yes, for the system to work, an expended shell casing or bullet would have to be recovered from the crime scene. But why let the perfect be an enemy of the good?

Ballistic fingerprinting isn't about civil liberties, nor is it about money. It's about fighting crime and saving lives.

Woellert is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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