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Atty. Ralph D. Sherman

130 West Main Street • New Britain, Connecticut 06052

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Don't waste money on ballistic boondoggle

"Op-ed" article

published in The Waterbury Republican-American

March 26, 2003

by Ralph D. Sherman

Connecticut’s state budget crisis hasn’t stopped some legislators from proposing another million-dollar government program that’s already a proven failure in other states.

The program is the creation of a "ballistic database," a registry of bullets and cartridge cases that have been test-fired from all guns sold in the state. The theory is that a registry would enable police to match a bullet or a case from a crime scene with a firearm in the registry. Police could use the registry to solve a crime like last year’s D.C. sniper case, if the theory worked.

But it doesn’t work.

In Maryland, for example, a ballistic registry was begun in 2000. In just three fiscal years, the cost to taxpayers has been $2.1 million, according to figures released in February by the Maryland State Police. The number of prosecutions in which the registry has been used: zero. The number of criminal cases in which a spent bullet or cartridge case has been matched to an entry in the registry: zero.

Some proponents claim that the Maryland registry has been unsuccessful because so far only about 26,000 firearms have been test-fired and registered. But the potential size of such a registry is one reason the program will never be effective, according to forensic scientists.

In California, no ballistic registry has been established, but the state government recently produced two independent studies on the subject. The first study concluded that a ballistic registry would be unworkable because even under a microscope, test-fired bullets and cases don’t show enough differences from one gun to the next. A registry of half a million handguns - the number sold in California in just five years - would be so large that when police tried to match a bullet from a crime scene, thousands of test samples would appear to match.

As stated in the 2001 California report: "Automated computer matching systems do not produce conclusive results. Rather, a list of potential candidates are 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."

The second California report, published in January 2003, focused on another problem. Although proponents like to talk about "ballistic fingerprints," the term is misleading. Human fingerprints are extremely difficult to change, but the tiny marks that guns make on bullets and cartridge cases are very easy to change; a few scratches on the inside of a gun barrel will make a big difference. Changes also are made through normal wear and tear. Because guns used in crimes are typically far from new, there’s little utility in a registry of test bullets that were fired from a gun years before a crime was committed. (Imagine keeping a registry of tire tracks so that police could identify a vehicle from tracks found at a crime scene.)

Another fundamental problem, as noted by a ballistics expert who testified March 18 at a legislative hearing in Hartford, is that a very wide range of ammunition is available for most modern firearms. About half the handguns sold today use a caliber known as "9mm parabellum." It’s available in scores of brands and variations from different manufacturers, with more than a dozen types of bullets made of various materials. No two types of ammunition will yield identical test results, but the Maryland program (for example) doesn’t begin to cover this problem; each gun is test-fired with a single round of ammunition. Yet even this simple test costs taxpayers $4.31 for a single entry in the registry, according to police statistics.

From a national perspective, it’s even more obvious that a ballistic registry is a waste. Experts agree that there are about 220 million firearms in private ownership in the United States. More than 99 percent of these firearms will never be used in crime. The ultimate goal of registry proponents, however, is a complete registry of all firearms.

It’s been tried in Canada, without the ballistics - just a nationwide registry of the gun owner’s name and address, and the make, model, and serial number of each gun. (Of course only law-abiding persons have complied with the registration requirement, despite many extensions of the deadline and a drastic reduction in the registration fee.) The latest estimate from Canada’s federal auditor is that the registry will cost $1 billion (in Canadian funds) by 2005. And the registry is riddled with errors. As of 2002, there were more than 200,000 entries in which the make, model, and serial number were duplicated, showing the same firearm registered to more than one individual.

It’s wonderful to dream about a "miracle cure" that might solve baffling crimes. In reality, however, it would be criminal to squander Connecticut tax dollars on another expensive program that doesn’t work - especially when state budget is already in the red.


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