The sniper spree in the Washington, D.C., area has spawned calls for "ballistic fingerprinting" of firearms.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced he would introduce legislation for a national program. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence told The Washington Post that ballistic fingerprinting would have "solved this crime after the first shooting."
But an October 2001 report by California state ballistics experts -- hushed up by the California attorney general's office -- concludes that ballistic fingerprinting isn't feasible right now.
Ballistic fingerprinting involves sending a fired bullet and empty cartridge casing from a gun to a government agency before that gun can be sold. The idea is to match -- preferably by automated computer analysis -- pre-sale ballistics data with crime scene data.
Maryland and New York already require ballistic fingerprinting. So far it hasn't helped convict a single criminal in Maryland despite "fingerprinting" 17,000 guns sold since January 2000. New York hasn't had success either.
And there isn't likely to be success any time soon, according to the study.
The report included the test firing of more than 2,000 rounds from 790 pistols.
When cartridges from the same manufacturer were test-fired and compared, computer matching failed 38 percent of the time. With cartridges from different manufacturers, computer matching failed 62 percent of the time.
"Automated computer matching systems do not provide conclusive results" requiring that "potential candidates be manually reviewed," said the experts.
But the experts estimated a California database would grow by about 108,000 entries every year for pistols alone. "This study indicates that this number of candidate cases will be so large as to be impractical and will likely create logistic complications so great that they cannot be effectively addressed," they said.
The test-firing results only scratch the surface of ballistic fingerprinting's problems.
The experts concluded it's unknown whether cartridges fired after typical firearm break-in and wear can at all be matched to the cartridge fired when the gun was new.
"Firearms that generate markings on cartridge casings can change with use and can also be readily altered by the users," said the experts. "They are not permanently defined like fingerprints or DNA."
A file may be used to make scratch marks in a barrel or a breech face, and various parts may be replaced to give a firearm a completely new ballistic identity. Bullets may be treated to alter the machining marks in a barrel.
Not all guns even generate markings on cartridge casings.
Further, "fired cartridge casings are much easier to correlate than fired bullets," noted the experts. Because bullets are severely damaged on impact, they can only be examined manually.
Moreover, Americans already own more than 200 million guns; those won't be included in any ballistics database.
Hiding behind the sniper shootings and calling for ballistic fingerprinting -- is the gun control lobby.
"The [sniper] shootings are a perfect example of how valuable complete ballistic fingerprinting would be," said a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
"Doesn't it make sense for us to give law enforcement the tools they need in order to solve such crimes?" asked Sarah Brady of the Brady Campaign.
Perhaps -- if ballistic fingerprinting worked. What gun control advocates really want is the proven result of ballistic fingerprinting -- reduced gun sales.
The Maryland law reduced 2001 handgun sales to their lowest level in 10 years. Handgun sales have continued to drop in 2002, according to the Maryland State Police.
Gun control advocates are fogging debate by claiming a July 2001 report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found computerized ballistic fingerprints currently available to federal law enforcement officials produced 8,800 ballistics matches with 17,600 crime scenes during 2000-2001.
But the ATF report only involved standard matching of crime scene evidence with post-crime ballistic testing. This is quite different from comparing crime scene with pre-sale ballistics.
Shockingly, the California experts were silenced by California's pro-gun control Attorney General Bill Lockyer. One panel member said he was gagged by the AG's office, not only about the study, but about the entire topic.
The AG's office acknowledged in an interview it favored a ballistics fingerprinting system and denigrated its study as "preliminary" pending a review by a lone European expert. No explanation was offered for not having FBI, ATF or other U.S. ballistic experts review the report.
The Bush administration has opposed ballistics fingerprinting on a national level, but this week committed to more study of the idea -- the same sensible recommendation made by the California experts.
As it stands now, ballistic fingerprinting only promotes the agenda of gun control activists, not the agenda more in the public interest, that of law enforcement.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).