Ballistics Fingerprinting: A Waste of Time

A national database would be costly and unworkable. And it would distract police from the hard work of fighting violent crime

By Paul Magnusson

Washington's Beltway sniper has local politicians scrambling to gain advantage by appearing tough on guns. Take Montgomery County, Md., where most of the carnage has taken place. Two candidates for Congress, one a Democrat, the other Republican, each brag that they're more despised by the National Rifle Assn. than the other.

Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Democrat, reminds voters that her father, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was killed in 1968 by a gunman. And she's pushing to expand Maryland's gun-control program, which requires dealers in the state to register the "ballistic fingerprint" of every handgun they sell. Her GOP opponent, U.S. Representative Robert L. Ehrlich, who has voted in Congress against gun-control measures in the past, is keeping his head down on the ballistic-fingerprinting issue.

Proponents of the ballistic-fingerprinting idea want to create a database of bullets and shell casings that could be scanned by a computer for matches with evidence found at crime scenes, just as police now scan DNA evidence. The idea: Recover the bullet from a shooting victim, match it to a computer image, and make the arrest. Sounds simple enough, right?


  In fact, a system for identifying bullets by individualized markings already exists. Administered by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms, the system compares bullets and shell casings found at crime scenes with those gathered from other, previous crime scenes. That system has allowed police to link the Beltway sniper's 13 shootings. The current system, involving 235 ballistics labs across the U.S., also empowers police to close multiple shooting cases when they catch just one miscreant, thereby saving taxpayers money and making police departments more efficient.

So what's wrong with expanding the current system beyond crime-scene collections and creating a national registry of all bullets and casings? Unfortunately, a nationwide system would probably be unworkable and needlessly expensive. Plus, it would further distract law-enforcement officers, policymakers, and voters from real-life solutions -- like the hard work of catching violent criminals, fully prosecuting them under existing federal gun laws, and putting them away for a long stretch in prison without parole (for another point of view, see "Ballistics Fingerprinting: A Lifesaver").

To see why, take a look at Maryland's program, in operation just two years at an estimated cost of $5 million. Its passage was lauded by proponents, with plenty of self-congratulation. Just one problem: The program has yet to result in a single criminal conviction.


  And no wonder. It doesn't collect and archive digitized images of bullets, only the empty shell casings and only from handguns. The shell casings can hold distinct imprints from firing pins and, in the case of semi-automatics, the ejector mechanism. Yet, most handguns on the street are revolvers that don't leave such marks and also don't conveniently eject a shell casing for police to recover.

Well then, why not require all guns to be brought to a police station so a bullet and shell casing can be recorded? Nice idea, but reliable estimates put the number of guns in America around 250 million. Who wants to stand in that kind of line? And did the Beltway sniper register his weapon's ballistic characteristics? Fat chance.

And how about stolen guns? A 1991 survey of prison inmates showed that 28% of the guns used in their crimes had been obtained through theft, a fence, or a drug dealer. In 30 years, the FBI has received reports of 3 million stolen guns. Would they be registered by their owners? Let's be realistic.

Other technical problems exist. Shotgun pellets aren't marked by their passage down the smooth-bore barrel of such weapons, in contrast to rifles or handguns whose grooves gouge tell-tale marks.


  Of course, in a perfect world, with unlimited government resources, the U.S. would institute a nationwide system and test-fire every gun. After all, who wants their children put at further risk from some deranged sniper? But Maryland is facing a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. So a cost-benefit calculation has to be made. Is a ballistics fingerprint system worth the effort?

A few years ago, for a BusinessWeek cover story, I interviewed scores of criminologists, police, and prosecutors on the best ways to stop violent crime. The near-unanimous verdict: Concentrate the police effort on solving violent crimes, using special investigation teams where necessary. Target violent offenders, gangs, and drug dealers. Once you have them arrested, dedicate the best prosecutors to just those cases.

And use federal gun laws with mandatory minimum sentences to add extra years to prison terms. The main reason: In many cities, a majority of the violent crimes are committed by a small number of repeat offenders. Get them off the street, and the violent-crime rate plummets.


  It's hard work, of course, and it can be expensive, requiring more prosecutors, judges, and prisons. Politicians don't like it because it doesn't fit on a bumper sticker. But consider this: Richmond, Va., tried just such a zero-tolerance pilot program in 1997 with federal help, after its murder rate soared to place it among the top five large cities in homicides per capita.

The result: 475 illegal guns were recovered in the first two years, 404 people were indicted on gun charges, and 86% were convicted and sentenced to jail time. Shootings dropped 40% by 2000, and the city's reputation as a safe and pleasant place to live revived.

Lastly, here's one more reason to think the Richmond approach is the best way to go: It's supported by such arch-enemies as the National Rifle Assn. and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Magnusson is a correspondent in the Washington bureau of BusinessWeek

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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