Maryland gets rid of gun 'ballistics fingerprinting' program

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Bullet casings leftover from a firearms training of law enforcement officers in Florence, S.C. (Alice Keeney For The Washington Post)

The Baltimore Sun (Erin Cox) reports:

Millions of dollars later, Maryland has officially decided that its 15-year effort to store and catalog the "fingerprints" of thousands of handguns was a failure.

Since 2000, the state required that gun manufacturers fire every handgun to be sold here and send the spent bullet casing to authorities. The idea was to build a database of "ballistic fingerprints" to help solve future crimes.

But the system—plagued by technological problems—never solved a single case. Now the hundreds of thousands of accumulated casings could be sold for scrap. . . .

There have been 26 instances in the past 15 years in which Maryland's cache of spent casings helped investigators in some fashion, but in each case investigators already knew the gun for which they were looking, state police said.

I'm not opposed in principle to such requirements. I don't think they violate the Second Amendment, because they don't materially burden people's ability to keep and bear arms. While there are plausible privacy arguments against attempts to track the exercise of some rights, here the tracking would come into play only when the gun is fired, in a context where the police come to investigate. I don't see a plausible privacy claim for the right to shoot a gun at someone (even in lawful self-defense) without the police being able to use information about your gun to track you down. And if the program worked, it could have been a good way to catch criminals while minimally interfering with the rights of the law-abiding.

But that's "if the program worked." It seems not to have worked: It apparently cost about $5 million over the life of the program, money that could have been used in other ways that actually would have solved crimes. Perhaps some other implementation might have been more successful, but even that's not clear. Former Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening, who promoted this program, is quoted as saying, "It's a little unfortunate, in that logic and common sense suggest that it would be a good crime-fighting tool." Maybe so, but it just goes to show that "common sense" solutions don't always work (something that's worth bearing in mind for liberals, conservatives and everyone else).

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