"Ballistic Fingerprinting": Code Words For "Firearms Registration"

Posted on March 15, 2000

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In his final State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton trumpeted his new "National Gun Enforcement Initiative," one component of which called for firearms to be ballistically fingerprinted. In the 1960s, this idea was recognized and rejected for what it is -- gun registration by another name. It deserves to be rejected now.

Under the Clinton plan, every newly-manufactured firearm and every imported firearm would have been fired and the distinctive markings left on the bullet and/or cartridge case recorded and entered into a national database before the gun could have been sold. The theory is that markings on a fired bullet or an empty cartridge case found at a crime scene could be compared to markings in the database, thus identifying the firearm used by the criminal--but not the criminal, who by definition has most likely stolen the firearm in question.1

The reasons to oppose this latest Clinton proposal are many. Among other things, his "Ballistic Fingerprinting" scheme would:

Require registration of law-abiding gun owners only. The system would apply only to newly- manufactured firearms, but anti-gun activists would soon demand that the "loopholes" in the system be closed and all of the more than 200 million privately owned firearms in America be covered. This would, of course, require registration, but only of honest citizens. Felons would be constitutionally exempt from any registration requirement.2

Be irrelevant to nearly all violent crime. Proponents ignore the fact that three out of four violent crimes, don`t involve firearms. They also ignore the fact that less than 1% of the firearms in America are used in crimes.3

Be circumvented easily by criminals. Nothing would prevent a criminal from altering the relevant parts of a firearm before using it in a crime, thereby rendering useless any bullet/cartridge case comparisons.

Ignore the fact that, unlike real fingerprints, "ballistic fingerprints" change. When a firearm wears through use and/or lack of maintenance, the markings on the bullets and/or cases it fires change.

Ignore the fact that most often no "fingerprints" are left behind. In 87% of handgun-related violent crimes, the gun is not fired, only brandished.4 Furthermore, many firearm designs, i.e. revolvers, do not eject fired cases, and shotguns, of course do not fire bullets.

Provide little bang for a lot of bucks. The tax dollars required to create the bureaucracy necessary to administer the Clinton mandate would be much more efficiently spent on more traditional law enforcement activities, such as hiring and retaining additional police officers and prosecutors and providing police departments with much-needed equipment.

Not merge competing systems. Currently, BATF and FBI have different "ballistic fingerprint" hardware and software systems, and it has been estimated that $30 million is needed to make them compatible. Before additional funds are devoted to this effort, it is incumbent upon Congress to determine why taxpayer dollars have been spent at cross purposes.

SUMMARY: The Clinton proposal is yet another flashy diversion from the real problem -- the Clinton-Gore Administration`s dereliction in prosecuting armed, violent offenders. While the President is attempting to distract Congress from that failure with a new spending proposal, it will be up to Congress to ensure that federal funds are well spent in rectifying this Administration`s dismal record. This proposal does not meet that challenge.


1. A study by BATF found that more than 70% of armed career criminals get their guns from "off-the-street sales" and "criminal acts" such as burglaries. ("Protecting America," 3/92). A study for the Department of Justice found that up to 71% of criminals` guns have been stolen. (Armed and Considered Dangerous, 1986)

2. In Haynes v. U.S. (309 U.S. 85, 1968), a convicted felon successfully appealed his conviction for unlawful possession of an unregistered short-barreled shotgun, citing the Fifth Amendment`s protection against self-incrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled: "We hold that a proper claim of constitutional privilege against self-incrimination provides a full defense to prosecutions either for failure to register a firearm under sec.5841 or for possession of an unregistered firearm under sec.5851."

3. Crime in the United States 1998. The FBI estimates firearms were used in 382,761 violent crimes that year. Even if a different gun was used in each crime, the total would amount to less than two-tenths of 1% of the nation`s estimated 230-240 million guns (Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 1997, pp. 96-97.).

4. Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Handgun Crime Victims," July 1990.

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