Ballistics Fingerprinting Rises in National Debate as Gunman Continues to Terrorize Washington Metro Area
By Ed Somers
October 21, 2002
As local law enforcement in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia work with state and federal authorities to find the sniper terrorizing the metro area, the issue of ballistics "fingerprinting" has become the subject of national discussion.
The Conference of Mayors has long supported crime gun and ballistics tracing. While the gun lobby has continually opposed "licensing and registration," the fact is that crime gun tracing is already common practice. This is how it currently works:
Step 1: If a gun is used in a crime and recovered by police, that gun is given to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms- (ATF) National Tracing Center.
Step 2: The ATF matches the serial number (or raises it if altered) and then contacts the manufacturer.
Step 3: ATF contacts the wholesaler, and in turn contacts the licensed dealer (Federal Firearm Licensee or FFL).
Step 4: The FFL is required to keep records of purchasers of firearms, and then provides that information to the ATF, who in turn provides it to the local police who requested the trace.
The system could be faster if ATF were allowed to keep data as to purchasers of firearms themselves, but this is not currently allowed under federal law.
Ballistics Tracing Already Exists
The next step in this process is ballistics tracing, when only a cartridge casing or bullet is available from a crime scene. Through its National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), ATF deploys the Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS) to state and local law enforcement for their use in imaging and comparing crime gun evidence. This equipment allows firearms technicians to acquire digital images of the markings made by a firearm on bullets and casings, the images then undergo automated initial comparison. If a "high-confidence" candidate emerges, firearms examiners compare the original evidence by hand to confirm a match.
The IBIS equipment is currently operating in at least 160 sites, and is expected to be operational in a total of 233 sites covering every State and major population center by the end of the year. And while there has been discussion of gun barrels being altered and marking patterns being altered with gun use, experts say that alteration is difficult and that even high levels of use do not usually alter ballistic fingerprints.
Next Step: Ballistics "Fingerprinting"
The problem with the current NIBIN system is that it only allows police to match crime scene ballistics evidence with other crime scene ballistics evidence or collected crime guns. It does not allow police to trace the ballistics evidence to the purchaser of the firearm, which can be done currently if the gun is recovered.
To allow this to happen, manufacturers would need to be required under federal law to send to the ATF test casings and, possibly, bullets from every new gun sold with matching gun serial numbers for entry into the NIBIN system. Then, if a cartridge or bullet is recovered, the ATF could very quickly trace that serial number back down to the original purchaser as is already the case when the gun is recovered.
This system would not require gun registration, in that ATF would not hold in its system the name of any gun purchaser, but rather would only trace a gun to the purchaser if it is used in a crime.
Maryland and New York State currently require manufacturers to provide ballistics information to them for new handguns sold in their states, however the ATF does not allow this information to be entered into NIBIN, so the tracing can only be done within those states. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to require a national ballistics system, which is likely to be heavily discussed next year in the 108th Congress.
Gun Show Loophole Remains
While a ballistics tracing system would be extremely useful in tracing crime guns, a major problem would still remain in that firearms continue to be sold at gun shows (and elsewhere) by unlicensed dealers who are not required to conduct background checks and to keep purchaser data. This would be yet another reason for Congress to close the gun show loophole as has been actively called for by the Conference of Mayors for many years.