Guns, Politics, and Freedom
November 6, 2002

‘Ballistic fingerprinting?’ 

Just the facts, please

F. Paul Valone


The following column ran in The Charlotte Observer on November 6, 2002, in response to ballistic “fingerprinting” legislation proposed in Congress in the wake of the Beltway Sniper killings.


Ballistic fingerprinting conjures “Dragnet” images of perps getting their fingers rolled in ink.  Today’s perp, however, is a Bushmaster rifle, tool of the Beltway Snipers.


The lands and grooves of gun barrels, together with flaws, transfer unique markings to bullets fired.  Cartridge casings are marked by the chamber and firing pin.


Contrary to propaganda, however, that uniqueness is where fingerprint analogies end.  Said a ballistics report commissioned—and later suppressed—by California’s attorney general, “Firearms that generate markings on cartridge casings can change with use and can also be readily altered by users.  They are not permanently defined like fingerprints or DNA.”


Such details rarely trouble gun control advocates, however, particularly when dancing in the blood of victims.  Senator Chuck Schumer—who’s never met a gun he wouldn’t ban or a fact he wouldn’t bend—insists ballistic fingerprinting would have “solved this crime after the first shooting.”


Senators Schumer, Herb Kohl and Diane Feinstein introduced the BLAST Act (“Ballistics, Law Assistance, and Safety Technology”), requiring gun makers to submit bullets and cartridges for digitizing and entry into a national database. 


Although BLAST seems logical (we test crime weapons, after all), it is little more than a ruse.


The California report found computer bullet matching failed up to 62 percent of the time, concluding: “Automated computer matching systems do not provide conclusive results” requiring that “potential candidates be manually reviewed.” 


If the specter of manually matching millions of guns isn’t alarming enough, understand that it too isn’t foolproof.  Said ballistics expert Marshall Robinson, whose team failed to match eighteen bullets from the rifle used to kill Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Every test bullet was different because it was going over plating created by the previous bullet.”


When advocates claim backing from a 2001 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) report, they avoid mentioning the report actually matched crime scene evidence with post-crime, rather than  pre-sale ballistics.


Ironically, Maryland already requires handgun “fingerprinting.”  Despite wasting $5 million to catalogue 17,000 guns (that’s $294 per gun), the system has yet to secure a single indictment.  John Lott, a former chief economist for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, notes that by draining law enforcement resources, ballistic registration could actually increase crime.


Indeed, Maryland could have used the $5 million for gun purchase background checks which, citing lack of funds, it suspended for six months.


By registering only newly manufactured firearms, BLAST misses both 200 million existing guns and the impact of thefts and secondary sales.


Moreover, ballistic signatures are easily camouflaged.  Changing a firing pin changes cartridge case imprints.  Changing a barrel (with some guns, a thirty second job) changes bullet markings.  Even smearing a bullet with toothpaste can alter a gun’s signature.


Before assuming police support BLAST, consider statements from the Fraternal Order of Police: “Since ballistic imprints, unlike fingerprints and DNA, can be altered, either deliberately or…through normal use, how can we assure the validity of the findings?”  Analyzing potential costs, the FOP concludes “law enforcement dollars [are] best spent elsewhere.”


So why are Schumer & Co. pushing an unworkable scheme?  Ask the FOP: “Without federally-mandated registration of the more than 200 million firearms in the U.S. today, such a database would be no more effective than the current [ballistics network] maintained by ATF.”


Registration.  When Schumer claims BLAST doesn’t identify gun owners, he conceals that while ballistic registration links bullets to serial numbers, the existing National Instant Check System (NICS) links serial numbers to buyers.  In Schumerland, it isn’t registration if information is stored in different databanks.


Oh, yes: Although the Brady Act theoretically requires the FBI to expunge NICS transaction records, courts have ruled that it can retain them indefinitely.


Imagine the brand new “loopholes” BLAST will let gun control advocates close: “Loopholes” requiring registration of private gun sales and, eventually, all firearms;  “loopholes” requiring registration not only of guns, but of barrels and parts—even of gunsmiths.


Ballistic fingerprinting should be more accurately dubbed “ballistic registration.”


John Muhammed and John Malvo were prohibited from owning firearms.  Muhammed apparently passed a NICS check despite being under a restraining order; Malvo is an illegal alien.  Yet “Americans for Gun Safety” (which has no Americans as members) and the Violence Policy Center wasted little time calling for new gun control to solve the failures of old.  Thoughtfully, the VPC web site provides a virtual “how-to” section for aspiring snipers.


As for the perp—the semi-automatic Bushmaster .223—survivors should be glad Muhammed didn’t use an old-fashioned, bolt-action .30-06.  At comparable muzzle velocities, the .30-06 launches bullets three times heavier, substantially increasing its lethality.


Like Dragnet, ballistic “fingerprinting” is just fiction.  In legislating public policy, however, advocates should limit themselves to “Just the facts…”