"Ballistic Fingerprinting" -- The Maryland Example:Costing Taxpayers Without Benefiting Law Enforcement

Posted on October 21, 2002

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In 2000 Maryland became the first state to require that new handguns must be "ballistically fingerprinted" before they could be sold in the state. Since then anti-gun activists have pushed such legislation in other states and at the federal level. They would have you believe they have discovered an effective new crime-fighting tool, but the truth is that way back in the 1960s their scheme was recognized and rejected for what it is--gun registration by another name. It deserves to be rejected once again.

Under the Maryland law, every newly-manufactured handgun is required to be fired and the distinctive markings left on the bullet and/or cartridge case recorded and entered into a database before the gun may be 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 most likely stole the firearm in question, leaving no paper trail to follow.1

To date Maryland`s law has proven to be an utter failure--it unfairly penalizes law-abiding gun owners and taxpayers, with no law enforcement value. With an average cost of $5,000 per shell casing, not a single crime has been solved. However, the number of laboratory personnel and administrators to run the program has risen, while the MSP has lost 12 troopers who would normally perform the critical job of ensuring public safety. By paying for IBIS out of community policing funds, the law is draining money from a program that monitors criminals and diverting it to a program that monitors law-abiding citizens.

Maryland`s "Ballistic Fingerprinting" Scorecard

Purchase price of IBIS, the software system used to manage collected shell casings.................................$1,100,000

Deallocated funds from community policing projects used to pay for IBIS....................................$1,000,000

Average annual cost of extended warranty on IBIS....................................$150,000

Annual operating cost according to legislative analysis of Maryland State Police (MSP) budget..................$750,000

Officer personnel lines MSP will give up to attrition this year...................................12 troopers

Number of new handguns lawfully transferred under the new law (10/1/2000-3/13/2001)............................400

Number of new handguns that would typically have been sold between 10/1/2000 and 3/13/2001................17,500

Number of crimes solved using shell casings available under the mandate..................ZERO

Faced with these the cold facts, the law`s anti-gun proponents have declared victory. Why? Because only 2.2% of the hand guns normally sold in Maryland during this period have been sold. As a key sponsor of the law even told the Washington Post, "We have inadvertently created an unintended consequence of a de facto ban on some weapons from some manufacturers."

Besides the utter failure of "ballistic fingerprinting" in Maryland, there are other important reasons to vigorously oppose such legislation at the state and federal levels. Among other things, "Ballistic Fingerprinting" schemes 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 that all of the more than 200 million privately owned firearms in America be surrendered to authorities for "fingerprinting." 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" can 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 such systems 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.
  • SUMMARY: "Ballistic fingerprinting" is yet another costly diversion from the real problem--the lack of prosecutions of armed, violent offenders. State and federal lawmakers should be focusing tax dollars on real solutions, not unworkable government bureaucracies.

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. (390 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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