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U.S.: Sniper Stalking Washington Area Revives Debates About Database To Help Track Guns

  • Andrew Tully

A series of unsolved murders in and around Washington, D.C., has reignited talk about some form of gun control in the United States. Much of the current debate is centered around the idea of "ballistic fingerprinting" -- that is, keeping a record of the unique markings that guns leave on bullets when they're fired. Some experts and legislators believe such a system would be useful in helping to solve gun-related crimes, including finding the person responsible for the current shooting spree.

Washington, 22 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The sniper who has terrorized the Washington, D.C., area over the past weeks has reopened the debate in America about how the U.S. government should keep track of firearms.

The U.S. Constitution protects the rights of citizens to "keep and bear arms," but advocates for gun laws say such language does not prohibit some form of reasonable regulation of guns. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that 66 percent of the 15,517 murders in the U.S. in 2000 were committed with firearms.

The latest discussions have centered on the idea of a national database of so-called "ballistic fingerprints" -- the marks that guns leave on bullets and their shell casings. It is believed that such information might have led to the apprehension of the sniper, who already has killed nine people around the nation's capital and wounded three.

Under such a program, each weapon would be fired at the point of manufacture or first sale so that a record of the distinctive markings left by the gun on the bullet and shell casing could be made and held in a central database.

Forensics scientists have long been able to identify the source of a fired bullet by these distinctive markings. Proponents of the database say it would keep a record of every gun and thus narrow down the search for an elusive killer like the Washington-area sniper.

Some, including advocates of gun owners, counter that the government should not rush into establishing such a system. Even the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush initially expressed skepticism that such a system would be feasible.

Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, was repeatedly asked about the matter last week as the sniper continued to kill -- and continued to elude capture. Fleischer finally said that the matter is under study by the federal law enforcement agency that focuses on firearms: "The president wants this issue explored. And to that end, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has been meeting, and met yesterday afternoon with White House staff to start to discuss the various issues: The technical issues, there are feasibility issues, the pros and cons about how this could possibly, may be effective, whether it could work or whether it would not be able to work."

But many observers, including forensic scientists, say establishing a database of "ballistic fingerprints" is likely to be expensive and time-consuming, while yielding few results to law enforcement officials struggling to bring a killer to justice.

Perhaps the most important problem with the database is the way it would be set up, according to Robert Levy, a specialist in constitutional and legal issues at the Cato Institute, an independent policy research center in Washington. Levy told RFE/RL that the system would have plenty of information about guns that are bought legally by hunting enthusiasts, for instance, but would contain little information about weapons acquired by criminals -- guns that are often acquired by theft.

"It only covers initial sales. It doesn't cover resales, and most importantly, it doesn't cover thefts. What it will cover is guns that are obtained by people for legitimate use who are wholly innocent of any wrongdoing, and what it won't cover is the guns that are used by criminals."

Second, Levy says, police trying to track down a killer through his gun would face the daunting task of matching up a single spent bullet or shell casing with an enormous nationwide database of "ballistic fingerprints." This, he says, would add significantly to the cost and time needed to find the killer.

Then there is the chance that a gun owner might alter the markings of a rifle barrel with a file or steel wool, for instance, or replace the firing pin -- thereby altering the "ballistic fingerprints" and rendering its record in the database useless.

In fact, according to Walter Rowe, a professor of forensic science at George Washington University in Washington, using a weapon repeatedly over several years, or even not cleaning the weapon at all for long periods would be just as effective: "You're only talking about scratches. If the weapon is not properly cared for -- the person doesn't clean it, so you get corrosion in the barrel -- barrels that get rusted, you can't get any kind of stable markings, reproducible markings, out of the gun barrel."

Rowe told RFE/RL that many Americans appear to have unrealistic expectations of forensic science, perhaps because of the novels, films, and television shows that glamorize the practice. In fact, he says, none of these fields is an exact science, and they all have one very significant limitation: "Whether it's an exact science or not an exact science is really neither here nor there. Actually, in forensic science generally, there are a lot of occasions where our tests just come up short. Forensic science is constrained by the quality of the evidence to begin with."

Rowe cites DNA testing as an example. He says comparing a suspect's DNA with evidence left at the scene of a crime can sometimes yield conclusive evidence of guilt or innocence. But he notes that bodily substances that might be left behind -- hair, scraps of skin, saliva -- do not always include a cell's full complement of DNA. Therefore, Rowe says, DNA tests are not always conclusive.

Jim Crandall is a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the federal agency that specializes in firearms law enforcement. He says ballistic fingerprinting should not be dismissed as an aid to law enforcement. He says that if DNA evidence is accepted and has proven helpful in criminal investigations, then a ballistic database should be accepted as well.

Crandall told RFE/RL that tracking firearms and the unique markings that they leave on bullets and shell casings may be flawed, but it can still benefit investigations. And the sooner a national ballistic database is established, the more help it will be: "We have had successes with it, and as the [data]base grows, with additional information being fed in from all over the country, we think it can be even more effective in the future."

According to Crandall, it is important to remember that only the most cunning of criminals would be able to elude capture by taking advantages of the weaknesses of the ballistics database. Criminals, he says, generally do not properly plan their crimes. "Criminals, for the most part, don't think they're going to get caught. I mean, this is why we have a lot of people in jail."

Crandall says a criminal who steals a gun is not likely to take the time to alter its barrel markings or spend the few dollars to change its firing pin. Most criminals believe they are plotting the perfect crime.

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