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Atty. Ralph D. Sherman

130 West Main Street • New Britain, Connecticut 06052
tel. (860) 229-0213 • fax (860) 229-0235 • e-mail


Legal Opinion

February 2003


Ballistic "fingerprinting":   Another legislative scam

With the serious budget problem facing state government, the General Assembly won’t have time this session to fool with gun laws, right?

Wrong, I’ll bet.

Our two-year terms mean that legislators are always running for office. That means they’re always looking for publicity. And the only way most gun laws are effective is in getting TV coverage for legislators.

I expect we’ll see a proposal for a "ballistic database" and/or more registration, based on the claim that the Washington, D.C., sniper case shows that these "improvements" are "needed." Those who make the proposal will neglect to mention that no form of registration would have helped catch the sniper.

Gun owners have known for a long time that gun registration has never been used to solve crimes. In fact, registration has only been used to confiscate guns. The proof is in the recent history of California, New York, New Jersey, England, and Australia - and in the history of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Today, however, there’s a new side to gun registration that all gun owners should know.

The cost.

It’s especially relevant as the legislature debates how to deal with all the red ink in the state budget.

During the past few years, our neighbors in Canada have attempted to create a registry of all firearms owned by civilians. The process has dragged on past several missed deadlines; it’s been obvious that many gun owners were not complying with registration, so the bureaucrats extended the deadline again and again.

But in December 2002, a federal auditor confirmed the latest suspicion about the gun registry.

It’s a money pit.

Canada’s gun registry was originally estimated to cost $2 million (in Canadian funds - about $1.3 million U.S.). The auditor’s latest report says that by 2005, the gun registry will cost $1 billion (about $670 million U.S.).

But even at these shocking prices, they haven’t been able to get it right. In November 2002, a member of Parliament (Canada’s version of Congress) disclosed that more than 200,000 entries in the registry are duplicates. That is, there are more than 200,000 guns listed in the registry as having the same make, model, AND serial number as some other gun in the registry.

Because Americans own about 10 times as many firearms as Canadians, it’s plausible to estimate that a national database here would cost at least $6 billion in U.S. funds.

But it would still accomplish zero - other than getting headlines for politicians.

The "ballistic database" is even more plainly a waste of money, if that’s possible.

In 2001 in California, the idea was tested to see if it would really be possible to make a database of fired bullets that could be matched to specific firearms. The California study, conducted by the state’s own Department of Justice forensic laboratory, showed that a ballistic database probably would produce erroneous results about half the time.

According to the California report: "Automated computer matching systems do not produce conclusive results. Rather, a list of potential candidates are [sic] presented that must be manually reviewed. When applying this technology to the concept of mass sampling of manufactured firearms, a huge inventory of potential candidates will be generated for manual review. 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."

In other words, with a huge database - and there are 250 million firearms in private ownership in the United States - an attempt to match a spent bullet to a single firearm would come up with so many matching firearms as to be worthless.

All this overlooks another obvious fact, however. Because gun barrels do wear out, most modern firearms are built so that barrels can be replaced easily. I can change the barrel on my Glock in 20 seconds, without tools. Change the barrel, and you’ve changed any identifying marks that might be created on a bullet fired from one particular gun.

This means that a "ballistic database" would make just as much sense as a "tire track database." We could pass a law requiring that every new car be driven over a patch of wet concrete, which would be photographed, with the photograph being stored in a $6 billion computer database. This way, every time tire tracks are left at a crime scene, police could use the database to identify the car - right?


Copyright 2003 by Ralph D. Sherman

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