Ballistic Finger Printing

Myth: Every firearm leaves a unique “fingerprint” that can pinpoint the firearm used

Fact:  A group of National Research Council scientists concluded that this has not yet been fully demonstrated.  Their research suggests that the current technology for collecting and comparing images may not reliably distinguish very fine differences. 1

Fact:  “Firearms that generate markings on cartridge casings can change with use and can also be readily altered by the users. They are not permanently defined like fingerprints or DNA.” 2

Fact:  “Automated computer matching systems do not provide conclusive results.” 3

Fact:  “Because bullets are severely damaged on impact, they can only be examined manually”. 4

Fact:  “Not all firearms generate markings on cartridge casings that can be identified back to the firearm.” 5

Fact:  The same gun will produce different markings on bullets and casings, and different guns can produce similar markings. 6  Additionally, the type of ammunition actually used in a crime could differ from the type used when the gun was originally test-fired — a difference that could lead to significant error in suggesting possible matches. 7

Fact:  The rifle used in the Martin Luther King assassination was test fired 18 times under court supervision, and the results showed that no two bullets were marked alike. 8  “Every test bullet was different because it was going over plating created by the previous bullet.”

Fact:  “The common layman seems to believe that two bullets fired from the same weapon are identical, down to the very last striation placed on them by the weapon. The trained firearms examiner knows how far that is from reality.” 9

Myth: A database of ballistic profiles will allow police to trace gun crimes

Fact:  The National Research Council deemed a national ballistics database as impractical due to practical limitations of current technology for generating and comparing images of ballistic markings. 10

Fact:  Maryland’s ballistics database “is not doing anything” 11 and “has not met the mission statement of the state police.” 12  In the first five years of implementation, it failed to lead to any criminal arrest or convictions, despite collecting over 80,000 specimens at a cost of $2,567,633. 13

Fact:  More than 70% of armed career criminals get their guns from “off-the-street sales” and “criminal acts” such as burglaries 14, and 71% of these firearms are stolen. 15 Tracing these firearms will not lead to the criminals, as the trail stops at the last legal owner.

Fact:  Computer image matching of cartridges fails between 38-62% of the time, depending on whether the cartridges are from the same or different manufacturers. 16

Fact:  “Automated computer matching systems do not provide conclusive results” requiring that “potential candidates be manually reviewed”. 17

Fact:  Criminals currently remove serial numbers from stolen guns to hide their origin.  The same simple shop tools can change a ballistic profile within minutes.  “The minor alteration required less than 5 minutes of labor”. 18 Criminals will make changing ballistic profiles part of their standard procedures.

Myth: Ballistic imaging is used in Maryland and New York and solves many crimes

Fact:  Not so far.  New York has not reported a single prosecution based on matched casings or bullets 19,  20,  21 and Maryland had only a single instance in 2005. 22 The cost for this lack of success in Maryland exceeds $2,500,000 a year, and in New York it exceeds $4,000,000.

Fact: In Syracuse, the police have submitted fewer than 400 handguns for ballistic testing over a three-year span because the system is inefficient. 23

Myth: A ballistic database is inexpensive to create/maintain

Fact: “ … [A] huge inventory [of possible matches] will be generated for manual review.” “[The] number of candidate cases will be so large as to be impractical and will likely create logistic complications so great that they cannot be effectively addressed”. 24

Myth: Police want a ballistic database

Fact: “The National Fraternal Order of Police does not support any Federal requirement to register privately owned firearms with the Federal government,” the group said. “And, even if such a database is limited to firearms manufactured in the future, the cost to create and maintain such a system, with such small chances that it would be used to solve a firearm crime, suggests to the F.O.P. that these are law enforcement dollars best spent elsewhere.” 25

Fact: “We in law enforcement know it will not, does not, cannot work.  Then, no one has considered the hundreds of millions of guns in the US that have never been registered or tested or printed.” 26

Fact: “One, the barrel is one of the most easily changed parts of many guns and two, the barrel, and the signature it leaves on a bullet, is constantly changing.” 27


Notes:

  1. Ballistic Imaging, Daniel Cork, John Rolph, Eugene Meieran, Carol Petrie, National Research Council, 2008
  2. Feasibility of a Ballistics Imaging Database for All New Handgun Sales, Frederic Tulleners, California Department of Justice, Bureau of Forensic Services, October 2001 (henceforth FBID)
  3. Feasibility of a Ballistics Imaging Database for All New Handgun Sales, Frederic Tulleners, California Department of Justice, Bureau of Forensic Services, October 2001 (henceforth FBID)
  4. Feasibility of a Ballistics Imaging Database for All New Handgun Sales, Frederic Tulleners, California Department of Justice, Bureau of Forensic Services, October 2001 (henceforth FBID)
  5. Feasibility of a Ballistics Imaging Database for All New Handgun Sales, Frederic Tulleners, California Department of Justice, Bureau of Forensic Services, October 2001 (henceforth FBID)
  6. Handbook of Firearms & Ballistics: Examining and Interpreting Forensic Evidence, Heard, 1997.
  7. Ballistic Imaging, Daniel Cork, John Rolph, Eugene Meieran, Carol Petrie, National Research Council, 2008
  8. Ballistics ‘fingerprinting’ not foolproof, Baltimore Sun, October 15, 2002
  9. AFTE Journal, George G. Krivosta, Winter 2006 edition, Suffolk County Crime Laboratory, Hauppauge, New York
  10. Ballistic Imaging, Daniel Cork, John Rolph, Eugene Meieran, Carol Petrie, National Research Council, 2008
  11. Maryland State Police Report Recommends Suspending Ballistics ID System, Col. Thomas E. Hutchins, the state police superintendent, WBAL-TV web site, January 17, 2005
  12. Maryland State Police Report Recommends Suspending Ballistics ID System, Col. Thomas E. Hutchins, the state police superintendent, WBAL-TV web site, January 17, 2005, Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, Maryland State police spokesman
  13. MD-IBIS Progress Report #2, Maryland State Police Forensic Sciences Division, September 2004
  14. Protecting America, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, 1992
  15. Armed and Considered Dangerous, U.S. Department of Justice, 1986
  16. Feasibility of a Ballistics Imaging Database for All New Handgun Sales, Frederic Tulleners, California Department of Justice, Bureau of Forensic Services, October 2001
  17. Feasibility of a Ballistics Imaging Database for All New Handgun Sales, Frederic Tulleners, California Department of Justice, Bureau of Forensic Services, October 2001
  18. Feasibility of a Ballistics Imaging Database for All New Handgun Sales, Frederic Tulleners, California Department of Justice, Bureau of Forensic Services, October 2001
  19. NY ballistic database firing blanks?, Associated Press, June 3, 2004
  20. Ballistics ‘fingerprinting’ not foolproof, Baltimore Sun, October 15, 2002
  21. Townsend backs New Rule on Sale of Assault Rifles, Washington Post, October 30, 2002
  22. Ballistics Database Yields 1st Conviction, Washington Post, April 2, 2005
  23. 400 guns wait to be traced by Syracuse police, The Post-Standard, December 8, 2002.
  24. Ballistics ‘fingerprinting’ not foolproof, Baltimore Sun, October 15, 2002
  25. F.O.P. Viewpoint: Ballistics Imaging and Comparison Technology, FOP Grand Lodge, October 2002
  26. Joe Horn, Detective, Retired, Los AngelesCounty Sheriff’s Dept., Small Arms Expert
  27. Ted Deeds, chief operating officer of The Law Enforcement Alliance of America, Dodge Globe, Oct 24, 2002