by Dave Workman
In a significant blow to the anti-gun lobby, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has issued a report suggesting that the government should not create a national database of so-called ballistic fingerprints from newly manufactured domestic and imported firearms.
Anti-gunners have been pushing the notion of a national ballistic imaging database for the past few years, and even Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) recently began promoting the idea on a national scale.
New York and Maryland have adopted similar ballistic imaging programs, but after nearly 10 years, neither state’s system has helped make a single arrest, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). The Maryland State Police have asked that their program be shut down and the funding be re-directed to other law enforcement uses, but no action has yet been taken on the police recommendation.
But the new report, according to a press release from NAS, says that “the fundamental assumption underlying (digital) forensic firearms identificationthat every gun leaves microscopic marks on bullets and cartridge cases that are unique to that weapon and remain the same over repeated firingshas not yet been fully demonstrated scientifically.” The report says more research is necessary to prove that the (computerized) technology actually works.
There is a larger problem, however. There is more than one approach to this new gun tracing technology, and they are different from one another.
The NAS report says that current ballistic imaging technology “can be useful in generating leads for law enforcement investigation.” The group recommended ways to “improve the usefulness of an existing ballistic image database.”
However, the current technology is not an end-all, be-all solution to identifying crime guns.
The controversy has been brewing for some time, as anti-gun organizations have pushed the idea of creating a national database of such images. Right now, virtually every new handgun made in this country is test fired for quality control purposes prior to shipping to distributors and dealers, and the fired cases are sealed in envelopes and packed with the guns in their boxes. Dealers in New York state and Maryland send these samples to their respect state police agencies for digital scanning and inclusion in a state database.
But a national database would not be feasible right now, primarily because of the “practical limitations of current technology,” the NAS said.
The report suggested that additional research might be productive on a controversial alternative to ballistic imaging known as “microstamping,” which is a completely different mechanical approach from ballistic imaging.
Using this technology, a tiny numeric code would be stamped into the shell casing and primer face of every cartridge fired in a semi-auto. This code would be transferred to the casing and primer face by etching it into the inner surface of the firing chamber, and onto the front of the firing pin. However, experts disagree that this technology would be any more successful than ballistic imaging, because the microstamp inside the chamber and on the firing pin could be easily removed or defaced with very little effort.
The NAS also suggested that more research on microstamping is necessary to determine the long-term durability of the small etched marks. It has not yet been determined, for example, how long these microstamped codes will wear inside of a pistol and on the firing pin. That is, how many rounds might be fired and cartridges cycled before the microscopic etchings wear away?
And then there’s a third approach, discussed in a recent Gun Week story out of Seattle, WA, regarding ammunition coding (see Gun Week, March 1, 2008). This approach involves etching a numeric code into each cartridge case, and onto the base of each bullet in a box of ammunition, and requiring a retailer to record the name and address of the person who purchases that ammunition.
A significant obstacle to this technology’s acceptance, much less its practical workability, is that ammunition manufacturers would have to figure out a way to do the etching while retaining their ability to select a few cartridges from a box or a lot of ammunition for factory testing and quality control, without slowing significantly or completely stopping their production assembly lines. Some estimates suggest that the increased manufacturing cost would force prices of ammunition to skyrocket at the consumer level.
California this year passed microstamping legislation, and there are about 10 states now looking at legislation that would require the ammunition coding technology.
Six years ago, the California Department of Justice derailed a plan being pushed in the state legislature when it issued a report stating that “Automated computer matching systems (ballistic imaging) do not provide conclusive results.”
The NAS study raises the same concerns.
“A great deal of misinformation about ballistics imaging has circulated in the media including referring to the technology as ‘ballistic fingerprinting’ or ‘ballistics DNA’ which is completely misleading and widely overstates the technology’s capability,” said NSSF Senior Vice President and General Counsel Lawrence G. Keane. “As the NAS study proves, this is simply not true.”
Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, has also been critical of the push to create a ballistic imaging database, and he has also criticized the more recent push for ammunition coding. Aside from noting that the imaging technology does not work reliably, he cited concerns among gunowners that a database of ammunition purchases would be back-door gun registration, at least for owners of semi-automatic handguns.
According to the NAS press release on a national database, “A number of problems would hinder the usefulness and accuracy of a national database….Ballistic images from millions of guns could be entered each year, and many of the images would depict toolmarks that are very similar in their gross characteristics. Research suggests that current technology for collecting and comparing images may not reliably distinguish very fine differences in large volumes of similar images, the report says. Searches would likely turn up too many possible ‘matches’ to be useful. Also, the type of ammunition actually used in a crime could differ from the type used when the gun was originally test-fireda difference that could lead to significant error in suggesting possible matches.”
However, the report recommended 15 improvements that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives could make to its National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN). Those recommendations focus on improving the operation of the program, and eight ways to improve the database’s “technical platform,” the NAS news release stated.
Copies of “Ballistic Imaging” are available from the National Academies Press by calling 800-624-6242 or visiting them on-line at: nap.edu.