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Ballistic Fingerprinting

by Stuart L. Wayne

A current "hot button" issue exists with regard to firearm legislation. Since this has been pursued at both state and federal levels, I thought I should organize my ideas on the subject of "Ballistic Fingerprinting" (shortened to BF hereafter). The results are presented herewith.

First, let me define the term as it seems to be used politically. Ballistic fingerprinting is the firing of every new gun as it leaves the factory for the purpose of supplying a representative fired cartridge casing (and bullet, some believe) to law enforcement at the point of final sale of that firearm. In concept, bullets and brass retrieved from a crime scene could then be matched to the gun and therefore its user. This idea sounds good, but it is impractical from a functional standpoint and problematic from a political approach.

Practical Considerations

There is a vast difference between the valid current law enforcement practice of comparing brass and bullets used in crime to a suspected firearm found, on the one hand, and BF (ballistic fingerprinting) on the other. A firearm found in the proximity of a crime or in the possession of a suspect in that crime is relatively easy to identify as the weapon used, although there are exceptions even to this. Bullets must be retrieved in pretty good shape for identification purposes. One that goes entirely through the victim and is not recovered obviously can’t be compared. Less obviously, a bullet that encounters buttons, belt buckles or bone may be retrieved but so deformed as to not make a usable comparison. Cartridge casings ("brass") will not typically be left at the scene if fired from a revolver, and brass is easily picked up after being released from most other action types. A semi-auto weapon will tend to throw the brass away from the gun, which may improve the chances of it being left at the scene but could also complicate the chance of it being found.

Note that these are the problems found in the valid use of on-site forensics to solve crimes. There are many more when this concept is stretched to include BF:

  • The first problem is the backlog of 230 million firearms already in existence in this country for which no BF data exists! By and large, criminals are not the original users of new weapons. They steal guns or they buy or rent used – and usually stolen - guns. The possibility that a BF’ed gun will be used in a crime remains remote.
  • Second, if the gun used is in fact a BF’ed one, the odds are heavily in favor of the original owner being uninvolved. As mentioned above, guns aren usually used in crime by their original, legal, owner. Establishing a chain of ownership from that owner forward is nearly impossible. Most private firearm sales require no legal chain of title, and theft with subsequent illegal sales most certainly will leave no record!
  • Third is the fact that, unlike human fingerprints, BF marks are impermanent. They are easily changed and will change without outside help as a firearm accumulates usage and cleaning wear. The BF marks made by a brand new gun may be unrecognizable many years later when that gun is used in a crime by someone far removed from its original registered owner (of this see more under "Political Considerations" below). There are many legitimate ways such marks are changed beyond normal wear, too. It is common to polish the interior surfaces, those very surfaces used in BF, of many firearms in order to enhance their reliability. The breech face and the extractor hook are the primary areas that leave their mark on fired brass and are the frequent targets of professional gunsmiths and amateur tinkerers alike. Barrels on many guns are easily replaced and this happens frequently when owners want improved accuracy, a different caliber or have just worn out the original barrel. In some cases, such changes are a simple matter of removing the original barrel and installing a new one. With many semi-auto pistols, this is a simple drop-in procedure that any gun owner can accomplish without tools. So much for comparing the striations on a bullet with one fired through a different barrel when the gun was new!

Practical problems exist on the data accumulation end as well. According to the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Forensic Services:

"When applying this technology [statewide ballistic imaging network] 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." (Excerpted from a report referenced in the January 2003 American Rifleman, the NRA magazine)

The NRA article goes on to state that New York spent $4.5 million to start up its BF database in March 2001 and Maryland about $5 million with no crime solved to date based on BF in either state.

Political Considerations

The only purpose for BF is to link each gun so identified to an owner – knowing that Smith & Wesson Revolver s/n XXXXXX was used in a crime is meaningless unless the user of the gun may then be identified. How does BF legislation propose to identify that user? By registering every BF gun to an owner. Thus the political problem: it has long been a strong position of the Second Amendment as an Individual Right true believer that registration of our guns is the penultimate infringement of that right. Once government is given a record of who owns what firearms, the ultimate infringement, that of showing up in force to remove those firearms, is just a jackbooted step away!

Paranoia? Maybe, if similar losses hadn already happened twice in the last half century! In New York City, registration of all semiautomatic rifles was passed into law some time ago. Objections to that were met with "Relax – we promise that this list will never be used for the confiscation of your firearms." So what happened a few years later when Mayor Dinkins took office? New Yorkers were made to divest themselves of those registered firearms and present proof to the police that they had! The other such event happened in California and hasn’t completely played out yet. When the California "Assault Weapon" registration and outright ban of some models was accomplished, the then-Attorney General of California was mandated to issue a list of which models were registerable and which were totally outlawed. Many Californians registered their weapons in accordance with this list. Others later bought listed guns relying on the list, an official government document, to keep them legal. Surprise! Along comes legal action a few years later that invalidated the list and an entire class of previously law-abiding citizens became instant felons!

We have already seen from the problems that I presented under Practical Considerations that registered ownership of a firearm and criminal use of that arm aren’t likely to coincide. I hope I also made it clear that there are an ample supply of non-BF guns out there for the criminal who wants one, and that even the BF guns can be easily made unidentifiable. Given all this, why the pressure to start a comprehensive forensically-based gun registry? The same reason that pressure had been created to make a permanent record of all NICS checks, the background check required to purchase a firearm. A permanent database of American firearm owners can have but one reason to exist, regardless of all the specious reasons given to prove otherwise – you can’t take away the guns if you don’t know where they are!

The US Congress has so far adhered strictly to the principal of not registering gun owners. In laws that may establish a database of firearm owners for short-term purposes such as the NICS criminal background check, specific requirements are called out to destroy such records after they are used. The BATF has been repeatedly prevented by congressional action from maintaining a registry of gun owners based upon Form 4473 purchase records. Since the practical benefits of BF are dubious, the only meaningful reason for proceeding with such legislation is as an excuse to circumvent this precaution, to allow a gun-owner registry to be created.

The ballistic fingerprinting of firearms will have no significant effect on crime, will cost millions of dollars both in direct expense and by taking away forensic experts from the more meaningful investigation of crimes, and will directly infringe on the rights of American gun owners. It is a bad idea from every perspective but one – the accumulation of absolute political power!


copyright 2003 by the author, all rights reserved.


Uploaded: 2/21/2004