by Dave Workman
Almost simultaneously as Los Angeles city officials were holding a media event to demand national adoption of a so-called ballistic fingerprinting system to track crime guns, the California Department of Justice (DoJ) was releasing an independent technical evaluation that essentially says the technology does not work.
Gun Week obtained a copy of the long-awaited study, conducted by Dr. Jan De Kinder, head of the Ballistics Section of the National Institute for Forensic Sciences in Brussels, Belgium. De Kinders independent evaluation was conducted at the request of anti-gun California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, and basically confirms the initial findings of DoJs own experts, whose report was kept under wraps by Locker for nearly a year.
The digital ballistic technology became a crime panacea du jour last October during the Beltway sniper investigation, as one gun control proponent after another appeared on television pandering the system as a crime-solving, and perhaps crime-preventing, tool.
Lockyer is a proponent of the technology, which is actually called ballistic imaging by experts. Critics contend that Lockyer suppressed the earlier report, by DOJs Frederic A. Tulleners, director for the Sacramento and Santa Rosa Criminalistics Laboratories, because it refuted his personal beliefs and anti-gun political agenda. Gun Week published the substance of the earlier report many weeks ago. There was additional criticism of Lockyer for a delay in the release of the newer De Kinder evaluation, but that apparently was due to certain protocols observed in the attorney generals office. The second report was finally made public in mid-January.
Ironically, as word of its contents began slowly creeping out, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, Councilman Nick Pacheco and Police Chief William J. Bratton appeared at a media event on a Los Angeles street corner where a 19-year-old Marine had been gunned down last year. They called upon Congress to adopt a national ballistic imaging system, perhaps unaware that their own state DoJs independent analysis said the system wont work.
In his executive summary, De Kinder indicated that there had been apparent efforts, by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and by Forensic Technology Inc. (FTI), which manufactures the Integrated Ballistic Imaging System (IBIS) used by ATF, to skew the research. The IBIS system, which is used to create, store and compare digital images of spent bullets and cartridge cases found at crime scenes, has already cost the federal government millions of dollars.
In his research, De Kinder used 782 Smith & Wesson Model 4006 semi-automatic pistols. Each pistol was test fired using at least two cartridges made by Federal Cartridge, and other ammunition. One of the fired Federal casings from each gun was entered into the IBIS databank. De Kinder then took 50 of the duplicate cases, selected at random, and compared them with the database.
The system, De Kinder wrote, ranks how well each entered mark matches the evidence. The higher the ranking the more similar the stored image is to the evidences mark. For the system to be successful, the correct gun should be listed in the top few ranks.
However, De Kinders evaluation revealed that 38 percent of the (50) pistols were not listed in the top 15 ranks. The same experiment was repeated with ammunition of a different brand. In this case, 62.5 percent of the pistols were missed and not listed in the top 15 ranks. . . . (T)he trends in the obtained results show that the situation worsens as the number of firearms in the database is increased.
De Kinder then notes that ATF argued that Federal primers are too hard, and they suggested using Remington-Peters ammunition for the IBIS test. De Kinder notes that Their choice is not based on peer-reviewed published research. He said hardness measurements of primers in Federal and Remington cartridges actually show that the Federal primer is softer.
FTI, De Kinder asserted, wanted to eliminate eight of the 50 duplicate cartridge casings from the evaluation because they could not be matched through manual examination by one of their own firearms examiners.
Writes De Kinder: FTI proposed to remove them from the statistics to achieve better results. This is unacceptable. As the . . . evaluation discusses the applicability of an automated comparison system to the problem of mass-produced firearms, all data points have to be taken into consideration. The goal of a ballistic fingerprinting system is not restricted to those cartridge cases that can be identified by a trained firearm examiner.
De Kinder also cautioned, It is important to mention that when starting a ballistic fingerprinting database, the technology and the protocols have to be well established and oriented towards future compatibility. A (sic) evaluation of different technologies has to be performed, prior to choosing for an existing solution. If this is not done so, the chances are that the now established database will be rendered obsolete in a couple of years.
Ballistic imaging has been criticized by various expertsincluding several former ATF agentsbecause factors involving particular firearms can change due to wear, replacement of parts and deliberate tampering.
Chuck Michel, an attorney and gun rights activist representing the California Rifle and Pistol Association, called the De Kinder report a smoking gun in this debate. He expressed wariness about the motives of ballistic imaging proponents.
If this is a ruse for advancing the agenda of the gun ban lobby instead of advancing legitimate crime fighting technology, he said, then this should go nowhere.
Most certified tool-mark examiners interviewed by Gun Week, who deal with forensic ballistics on a daily basis, view the ballistic fingerprinting proposal with considerable skepticism. They note that if such a system does not actually reduce the number of probably identification hits it will actually slow down the work of criminal investigations.