NAS Against National Ballistic Imaging Database

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The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released an extensive study on the feasibility and reliability of establishing a national ballistic imaging, sometimes misleadingly referred to as ballistic "fingerprinting," database. The study concludes, "A national database containing images of ballistic markings from all new and imported guns sold in the U.S. should not be created at this time".

The contemplated national ballistic imaging system would require that a fired cartridge casing from every newly manufactured and imported firearm sold at retail in the United States be sent to a federal agency to be imaged and up-loaded into a massive government-run database. In theory this would allow law enforcement to collect ballistics evidence (i.e. fired cartridge cases) at crime scenes and search the database in hopes of finding a match that might then allow law enforcement to identify the specific firearm used in the crime.

Forensic experts at the California Department of Justice raised questions about the feasibility of such a system in a study released in 2002 when the California legislature was considering establishing a statewide system like New York and Maryland. The researchers at the California Department of Justice concluded, "Automated computer matching [ballistic imaging] systems do not provide conclusive results." Heeding that study's conclusions, the California legislature rejected the concept.

The Maryland and New York ballistic imaging programs have been in place for almost a decade but neither has produced a single arrest or prosecution despite several million dollars of taxpayer funding. The Maryland State Police Department has called for their program to be repealed and the funds redirected to other, more effective law enforcement measures.

In their study, the NAS researchers questioned the validity of the science underlying this technology. "The fundamental assumption underlying forensic firearms identification – that every gun leaves microscopic marks on bullets and cartridge cases that are unique to that weapon and remain the same over repeated firings – has not yet been fully demonstrated scientifically. More research would be needed to prove that firearms identification rests on firmer scientific footing."

"A great deal of misinformation about ballistics imaging has circulated in the media including referring to the technology as ‘ballistic fingerprinting' or ‘ballistics DNA' which is completely misleading and widely overstates the technology's capability," said NSSF Senior Vice President and General Counsel Lawrence G. Keane. "As the NAS study proves, this is simply not true."

Keane noted that following the California Department of Justice study, "the firearms industry called for and fully supported a national study of the feasibility of a national ballistics imaging database. Industry members cooperated with the NAS researchers by providing factory tours and answering their technical questions."

In the study researchers noted, "A number of problems would hinder the usefulness and accuracy of a national database. Ballistic images from millions of guns could be entered each year, and many of the images would depict toolmarks that are very similar in their gross characteristics. Research suggests that current technology for collecting and comparing images may not reliably distinguish very fine differences in large volumes of similar images, the report says. Searches would likely turn up too many possible ‘matches' to be useful. Also, 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."

"The conclusions of the NAS researchers validate our industry's long-standing concerns about the feasibility of a national database," added Keane. "Our industry has always supported the use of ballistics imaging by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as a potential law enforcement tool because that database is limited to ballistics evidence from crime scenes. The fact that the ATF system, called the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), is not cluttered with millions upon millions of images from firearms lawfully possessed and used makes the program more efficient in identifying potential matches."

Firearms Microstamping Should Be Studied

The study also examined a newly developed technology called "firearms microstamping." Microstamping is a patented sole source process that laser engraves the firearm's make, model and serial number on the tip of the gun's firing pin so that, in theory, it imprints the information on discharged cartridge cases.

A recent peer-reviewed study published in the professional scholarly journal for forensic firearms examiners proved that the technology of microstamping is unreliable and does not function as the patent holder claims. It can be easily defeated in mere seconds using common household tools or criminals could simply switch the engraved firing pin for readily available unmarked spare parts, thereby circumventing the technology.

Experts at the University of California at Davis, recently finished a study of the technology. The U.C. Davis researchers found the technology "flawed" and concluded that "At the current time it is not recommended that a mandate for implementation of this technology in all semi-automatic handguns in the state of California be made. Further testing, analysis and evaluation is required."

Similarly, the NAS report noted that "further studies are needed on the durability of microstamping marks under various firing conditions and their susceptibility to tampering, as well as on the their cost impact for manufacturers and consumers."

"The firearms industry opposes microstamping legislation that would mandate this questionable technology and, as we did with ballistics imaging, we support the call for further study of the technology," said Keane.

Last year California enacted legislation to require that all new models of semi-automatic pistols sold in the state be microstamped beginning January, 2010. "Microstamping will add approximately $200 to the price of each firearm," noted Keane. "Manufacturers informed California Governor Schwarzenegger they would be forced to abandon the California marketplace because the cost of incorporating the flawed and easily defeated technology was too high."

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