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Ballistic Fingerpainting
Wednesday, January 21, 2009 • Posted January 21, 2009

Last week we looked at one of the latest in a string of really stupid ideas for attempting to solve gun crime in America, ‘ammunition serialization.’ Never mind that the number of gun crimes in the country has been dropping steadily for the past decade or more, the space cadets are willing to incorporate any idea they can come up with to help, no matter whether it will work, and no matter how much it costs. And they are willing to do this because they don’t have to pay for it. You do.

But putting serial numbers on every cartridge of ammo sold in America is just one extremely bad idea, albeit a very expensive one. There are plenty of others, and one of these that’s been getting a lot of press lately is ‘ballistic fingerprinting.’ Touted by the anti-gun liberal media and publicity-hungry politicians as ‘the DNA of crime fighting,’ ballistic fingerprinting is actually neither DNA nor fingerprinting. What it is, mostly, is wishful thinking. Even at that there is very little thinking and a lot of wishing.

Ballistic fingerprinting, honestly, is a good idea on paper, but it won’t work in the real world. The concept is based on the belief that every firearm is different, and therefore when a gun is fired, its firing pin leaves a distinctive impression on the primer of the cartridge. So, at a crime scene, such as you see on CSI Miami, investigators can pick up a fired case and compare its firing pin impression with those on cases picked up at other crimes, and see if there’s a match.

Now, obviously, there might not be a match, especially if the gun used has never been used in a crime before. So the idea there is that police can grab the most likely suspects, test fire their guns, and match the primer impressions of the cases from the crime scene with those from the test-fired guns, and maybe get a match. Case solved.

Well, not exactly. For one thing, as stupid as criminals are, most are smart enough to turn on a television. If ballistic fingerprinting becomes common, your average criminal will know to get rid of a gun he used in a crime, either by throwing it away or selling it, maybe to an honest citizen, such as yourself. This is assuming he doesn’t have the presence of mind to pick up his empty casings, or attach a bag to his gun to catch them as they’re fired, which is another option.

A criminal could also go to a firing range and pick up empty cases there, and then leave them at a crime scene. This would send investigators running in circles to find guns that were never anywhere near the scene. If they happen to find one, and it happens to be yours . . . remember what Ricky Ricardo used to say when he came in the door? “Hey Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do.”

Even if the police are on the right track, and find the actual gun used in the actual crime, they would have to be quick to be sure of a match. The firing pin signature of a given firing pin changes over time, because of normal wear and tear caused by shooting the gun. As few as 500 rounds could change the impression enough that a computer would dismiss it as coming from a different firearm. A quicker, quieter method would be to use some abrasive paste on the pin. In fifteen minutes the evidence would be obliterated. Just about any moron with $20 could accomplish that.

A system called IBIS, Integrated Ballistics Information System, was developed in 1999 to compare firing pin signatures. About 160 crime labs in America, with very little success, now use this system. The number of images in the system is manageable, because IBIS only stores images of cases that have been used in crimes already. Experts, such as Dr. Roger McCarthy, principle engineer for IBIS, say no computer could compare and match enough images for a national database to be developed.

Even as it stands, the system is flawed. In a recent test, guns were fired and images of their cases were put into the system, and the computer made matches only 38% of the time. At least two cases fired from the same gun at the same time were entered, and the computer failed to match them in almost two thirds of its attempts. And the more images stored in the computer, the less likely it is a match will be found, even when it’s there.

The bottom line is that there is no such thing as ‘ballistic fingerprinting.’ IBIS works fairly well a third of the time, because it is small and manageable. Load enough images to create a national database, and you crash a system that doesn’t work all that well to begin with.

If we let ideas like ammunition serialization and ballistic fingerprinting get by without challenge, this kind of thing will end up invading every aspect of our lives. It may seem like a small issue now, but don’t blame me when you have to sign for individual squares of toilet paper . . .

Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who believes government should stay where it belongs, in Washington D.C. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or

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