Baloney Ballistics

Gun databases fail

Seven years ago, New York started a database of "ballistic fingerprints" for all new handguns sold in the state. The bill's backers sold it as a crime-solving device, arguing that the state would now have a sample of a spent shell and bullet for every new gun sold. This, they said, would help police connect future evidence from crime scenes to specific guns.

Since then, the authorities have entered 200,000 newly purchased guns into the database and spent $1 million dollars a year on the system. Yet it hasn't led to a single solved crime. The only other state with such a database, Maryland, can attribute at least one conviction to the system since it was created in 2000-more than zero, but few enough that the state's own Police Forensics Division has suggested scrapping the program because of its demonstrated lack of benefits.

This hasn't come as a surprise to gun rights activists, who pointed to several potential problems when the databases were originally debated. Among them: The markings left by a gun are not guaranteed to be the same over the long term and can be deliberately changed with simple expedients such as filing inside the barrel; the vast majority of guns used in crimes are stolen or otherwise obtained in a black market, not used by their original legal owner; devoting so much record keeping to every gun sold guarantees wasted effort, since less than 1 percent of all guns sold will ever be used in a crime.

In 2003 a report from the California Attorney General's Office recommended against launching such a program because of its likely ineffectiveness in crime solving. And a March 2008 study from the National Research Council recommended against a national version of the New York and Maryland databases. In addition to noting the obvious ways in which such a program could be easily circumvented by criminals, the study said the theory behind the ballistics databases—that every gun marks shells and bullets in specific, stable, identifiable ways—has not been scientifically proven.

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