National Academy of Sciences Says a “Ballistic Imaging” Database “Should Not Be Established”

Posted on April 10, 2008

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On March 5, the National Academy of Sciences released Ballistic Imaging, the report of a committee assigned to evaluate the feasibility, accuracy and technical capability of a possible national database of so-called “ballistic images” from new guns sold in the United States.

The committee, which included several supporters of gun control, considered dozens of factors, including the uniqueness of images, the ability of imaging systems to capture images, the odds against images in a database being matched with cartridge cases and/or bullets found at crime scenes, the “huge existing supply of weapons and ammunition that would not be entered into the database,” and the fact that criminals could beat the system by using guns that do not leave cases at crime scenes, such as revolvers. The committee concluded, “A national reference ballistic image database should not be established.”

The committee’s chairman, John Rolph, a professor of statistics at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, said, “current technology for collecting and comparing toolmarks [left on bullets and cases] is not sufficiently precise in distinguishing extremely fine marks among so many images.” He noted, “the type or brand of ammunition used in the initial firing of a gun would not necessarily be the same as the ammunition later used in a crime [and the] difference could be a significant source of error.”

Instead of a national “ballistic image” database, the report recommended improving BATFE’s database of crime-related ballistic evidence, the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN). It also recommended research on micro-stamping of guns and ammunition, noting that studies have not determined how durable micro-stamped marks are under various firing conditions, how susceptible they are to tampering, or what their cost would be to manufacturers and consumers.

Neither an imaging database nor micro-stamping technology has been proven to help police solve crimes, or that it is necessary for that purpose. Moreover, neither could be effective without registration of guns and ammunition, a ban on private sales of guns and ammunition, and a ban on the manufacture, importation, sale and possession of guns from which images have not been taken, guns that do not stamp codes on fired ammunition, and uncoded ammunition.

Nevertheless, in February, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) introduced a bill in Congress (S. 2605, H.R. 5266) to require that new semi-automatic pistols be equipped with special breech faces, firing pins, or other internal parts that micro-stamp unique codes on ammunition upon firing. California imposed such a requirement in 2007, and in more than a dozen states so-called “encoded ammunition” bills have been introduced to require that bullets and cases be micro-stamped with codes by the manufacturer, and most such bills would also require people to dispose of their uncoded ammunition.

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