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Shootings Put New Emphasis on Bullet IDs

Sniper attacks renew call for a database that would track unique fingerprint from weapons. Gun makers and NRA have blocked such plans, backers say.

October 14, 2002|Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The sparse evidence available to investigators in the Washington-area sniper shootings has thrown new attention on proposals to create a national system for linking bullets recovered at crime scenes to specific firearms.

Technology to create such a system is in limited use. Several lawmakers have argued that the system should be expanded so that every weapon -- before it leaves the manufacturer -- is tested for the unique fingerprint it leaves on bullets and casings.

Bullets and casings found at crime scenes could then be linked to the gun that fired them, advocates say, and then possibly to an owner. But gun makers and the National Rifle Assn. have blocked the plan, they say.

"The gun lobby has made it clear to the majority in the House that there will be no new federal gun laws," said Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.), the sponsor of one proposal to create a national ballistic fingerprinting system.

Another hurdle, he said, is that his measure can best advance if attached to a larger crime bill, "and there's been no such bill moving in the last few years."

"I don't think there's any question that this is technically feasible," said Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

In fact, he said, investigators used similar technology to compare bullets recovered in the Washington-area shootings, and to conclude that they came from the same gun.

When a gun is fired, it transfers microscopic dents and scratches to the bullet and casing. Those markings are as unique to the firearm as fingerprints are to people, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says.

In the past, comparing these markings was time-consuming and hard on the eyes. Now, images of bullets and casings can be digitized, placed in a database and automatically compared with images of other ballistic evidence.

This allows investigators to determine whether bullets found at different crime scenes came from the same weapon. Investigators can also fire a test shot from a weapon found at a crime scene and compare the bullet to those in the database.

Tests Showed Promise

In 1999, the FBI and ATF joined forces to create a system for recording ballistic evidence found at crime scenes.

"We piloted the technology when I was at ATF, and the testing showed that this equipment had a high degree of success," said Joe Vince, a former chief of the firearm agency's crime guns analysis branch.

He said the system, called the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, could make 8,200 comparisons between bullets in less than two seconds.

Vince, Andrews and others are calling for a more comprehensive system that would include information from every gun before it reaches consumers. Maryland and New York recently started such a system for all new handguns, Vince said.

In a national system, each weapon's serial number would be paired with a digital form of its unique bullet and casing marks.

Andrews said that if such a system had been in place for several years, there is a chance it would contain data for the gun used in the Washington-area sniper assaults. Police could match the .223-caliber bullets they have recovered to the sniper's gun, he said, and could then try to track the chain of ownership of that rifle.

"My guess is that when the police apprehend this shooter or shooters, their best clue will have come from the vehicle they used, but not the gun," Andrews said. "Think about that: What a relatively ineffective way to investigate this crime."

He said a ballistic database "would convert the investigation from finding a needle in a haystack into a very focused event."

A call to the NRA requesting comment was not returned. The group traditionally opposes any measure it considers a move toward creating a registry of gun owners.

William A. Tobin, a former FBI metallurgist, said a system to track every new firearm would be unworkably complex.

One hurdle, he said, is that gun barrels and mechanisms change over time, which in turn changes the marks on bullets and casings.

"I am truly skeptical that in our lifetime there could be a database that would uniquely fingerprint each weapon," he said. A more feasible system, he suggested, would include markings intentionally introduced in the manufacturing process.

Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, a Washington group working to reduce gun violence, said a national database would have other shortcomings.

The system would not include any of the tens of millions of guns already on the streets, she said. And because a gun is typically used in crime only three years after manufacture, the system would not show results for several years.

Moreover, she said, the proposal has never gained traction in Congress.

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