The idea that every cartridge fired from a gun should later be traced uniquely and specifically back to the owner is an appealing one. Every week you see it happen on CSI: Miami — one casing left at a crime scene is analyzed and leads back to someone’s “registered” handgun — but the realities of matching the semi-unique markings left on the cartridge case to a specific firearm are mindbogglingly complex. That’s a hard reality that the state of Maryland has has finally fessed up to as they finally admitted that their multi-million dollar “firearm fingerprinting” system had become an expensive, useless waste of taxpayer dollars . . .
From the Baltimore Sun:
Since 2000, the state required that gun manufacturers fire every handgun to be sold here and send the spent bullet casing to authorities. The idea was to build a database of “ballistic fingerprints” to help solve future crimes.
But the system — plagued by technological problems — never solved a single case.
In a old fallout shelter beneath Maryland State Police headquarters in Pikesville, the state has amassed more than 300,000 bullet casings, one from each new handgun sold here since the law took effect. They fill three cavernous rooms secured by a common combination lock.
Each casing was meticulously stamped with a bar code, sealed in its own envelope and filed in boxes stacked from floor to ceiling. Forensic scientists photographed the casings in hopes the system would someday identify the owner of a gun fired at a crime scene. The system cost an estimated $5 million to set up and operate over the years.
But the computerized system designed to sort and match the images never worked as envisioned. In 2007, the state stopped bothering to take the photographs, though hundreds of thousands more casings kept piling up in the fallout shelter.
The ballistic fingerprinting law was repealed effective Oct. 1, ending the requirement that spent casings be sent in. The General Assembly, in repealing the law, authorized the state police to sell off its inventory for scrap.
Did you catch that. The system never solved one…single…case.
Brainstorms like “ballistic fingerprinting” and so-called “smart guns” fall into the same rough category: pie in the sky. In theory they could have a positive impact on reducing (or at least solving) firearms-related crimes and accidents. The problem is that gun controllers only see their “positive” possibilities and never actually stop to consider how well these technologies work out here in the real world. Or how well they don’t. Think of Maryland’s ill-conceived system as the ballistic equivalent of healthcare.gov:
Worse, the system Maryland bought created images so imprecise that when an investigator submitted a crime scene casing, the database software would sometimes spit out hundreds of matches. The state sued the manufacturer in 2009 for $1.9 million, settling three years later for $390,000.
Good thing it was only taxpayer dollars or someone might have to account for the system’s failure.
Forensically linking cases to a specific gun is accepted and valid forensic science, but even then the term used to describe a match is “consistent.” As in, “these two cases are consistent with being fired from the same gun.” There is no absolute certainty, as seen each week on episodes of CSI-Peoria, especially when you have hundreds of nearly-identical mass-produced firearms.
While the first cartridge won’t vary much from the second one, the distinctive markings crime scene investigators rely on appear only after years of unique use. So it makes sense that when you have a catalog of the very first round fired through a new mass-produced handgun there isn’t going to be much variation, which means the number of potential matches will be rather insane.
That’s not the reason why the Maryland system failed, though. It was doomed from the beginning simply due to the realities of crime in the United States. If a firearms owner goes through the rigmarole of registering their handgun, they probably aren’t going to go use it to commit crimes. This is from one of the designers of the system’s post on Reddit about the massive failure:
Registration evidence from law-abiding gun owners is inherently of very little value to investigators. Anyone willing to go through the process of legally acquiring a gun in Maryland is probably not a criminal. In the rare cases where a legally registered gun was linked to a crime it would fall in one of two categories:
- Crime of passion / heat of the moment. A gun owner used their legally obtained gun to commit a crime on the spur of the moment. By and large, investigators didn’t need a complicated system to tell them whodunit, they’d generally have all the evidence needed to arrest.
- Stolen gun. A registered gun is linked to a crime, but the legal owner reported it stolen ages ago. That knowledge that a gun was legally purchases by John Q. Public and stolen years ago is exceedingly unlikely to be useful to investigators.
In short, while the concept may have been good, the execution has some fatal flaws not only due to the physical realities of how guns work, but also the realities of where criminals get their guns. All it takes to make the system useless is about five seconds with a metal file on the breech face of a handgun and the fingerprint submitted to the police department will no longer match up with fingerprint of the gun that’s on file.
There is no way to uniquely identify guns based on analysis of their fired cartridges (microstamping is an even bigger headache and more problematic), but just as with “smart guns,” civilian disarmer types have shown an utter disregard for reality, continuing to push their agenda anyway. They seem completely divorced from reality, choosing instead to believe that they live in a fantasy world where “simple” ideas like these are flawless and will stop all crime.
When you ignore the truth about guns, failures of systems like this are the end result. It’s just good that Maryland figured out their blunder before squandering any more of their taxpayers’ hard-earned money.