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Posted on Mon, Jan. 27, 2003



Studies shoot down ballistics database
Gun-control advocates said such databases hold eventual promise, even if they are not ready today
By Don Thompson


Source: "Technical Evaluation: Feasibility of a Ballistics Imaging Database for All New Handgun Sales," California Department of Justice, Oct. 5, 2001; "Ballistic Imaging and Comparison of Crime Gun Evidence," federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, May 13, 2002; Review, Dr. Jan De Kinder, head of the Ballistics Section, National Institute for Forensic Science, Department of Justice, Belgium, undated.

ON THE WEB

Read SB35 at www.sen.ca.gov

SACRAMENTO -- Two related California studies to be released this week conclude that it is now impractical to catalog the ballistic "fingerprints" of every firearm in California, findings that gun-control opponents are using to fight calls for a national database inspired by last fall's East Coast sniper shootings.

Recording every firearm made and sold in the nation's most populous state could be overwhelming, according to an internal California Department of Justice report obtained by the Associated Press last fall.

Now, supporters of a nationwide database fear that an independent scientific review of that report, provided to the AP this week, will further undermine congressional support for a national firearms database.

Gun-control supporters want California to lead the way by passing proposed legislation requiring manufacturers to provide a bullet "fingerprint" for every gun made and sold in California, which sells and produces the most guns of any state. Maryland and New York require ballistics be kept only on handguns.

State Attorney General Bill Lockyer sent the initial report to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for rebuttal and asked for an independent review of the research method used by his agency while he delayed the report's public release.

But the independent report, conducted by Belgian ballistics expert Jan De Kinder, supported the earlier state study and disputed the ATF's rebuttal. A copy of the report was provided last week after repeated previous requests were denied.

Gun control advocates said that De Kinder's report shows such databases hold eventual promise, even if they are not ready today.

"We think the system has tremendous potential. It clearly needs more support and development," said Luis Tolley, Western director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "It's similar to where we were 10 years ago with DNA. ... If there are problems, let's solve those problems."

Tolley questioned why the state would ask for a review by "someone who has been speaking out against most databases for a long time," given Lockyer's support for a national database.

The review by De Kinder, of Belgium's National Institute for Forensic Science, will be included as an appendix in a report Lockyer will forward to state lawmakers early next week, spokeswoman Hallye Jordan said. That report will put the two negative studies into "context," she said.

Lockyer is expected to conclude that a statewide database for large-scale ballistics comparisons is not currently practical, but he will call for more research and development.

"The department's report shows the need for leadership at the state and federal level to further develop the technology and, ultimately, establish a database of ballistic information," said state Sen. Jack Scott, D-Altadena, who proposes that California collect the data for later use as the technology improves.

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, expects the Scott's bill may pass, if "politicians in California say, 'The heck with the truth: We want to put this on line.'" However, he said, the studies illustrate that "this needs a lot more study or a lot of money will be wasted."

Lockyer earlier said the state study illustrates the massive technological and logistical problems with tracking more than 100,000 firearms sold annually in California, and more than 1 million nationwide. But he said the potential advantages mean the federal government should make developing a usable database "a top national priority."

Ballistics comparisons already are widely used to match specific bullets to specific firearms, or to link bullets found at different crime scenes to the same weapon. Long before they had suspects in custody last fall, East Coast investigators used such comparisons to conclude that bullets recovered in separate shootings over a wide area came from a single rifle.

Advocates say creating a database containing the unique ballistics "signature" of all firearms would let bullets at crime scenes be matched to specific weapons and owners, in the same way fingerprints can be matched to individuals.

California's initial study found the number of potential computer matches in the state alone "will be so large as to be impractical;" that "a large proportion" of weapons couldn't be recorded; and that each gun's markings change with routine use and can be easily altered. The report also said such an expensive system would have limited results.

A California law required the final report be sent to legislators in June 2001, but Lockyer delayed its release while he asked for the reviews by ATF and De Kinder.

The ATF disputed much of the California report, saying with systems such as a more limited crime-gun database currently being developed by the ATF and FBI, "large-scale ballistic comparison goes from an impossibility to a valuable investigative tool."

But De Kinder supported the state study, rejecting criticism by both the ATF and Forensic Technology Inc., which produces the Integrated Ballistic Identification System that was tested by the state. That system is used in the fledgling national database being developed by the FBI and ATF to compare weapons and bullets recovered at crime scenes.

Not only was the system ineffective in a third to two-thirds of test firings, but "the situation worsens as the number of firearms in the database is increased," De Kinder found.

Such databases hold promise, he concluded, but not without improvements in the current technology.

ON THE WEB

Here's a look at a California Department of Justice evaluation of problems with creating a ballistics database; at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' response; and at an independent review of the state's study:

THE STATE EVALUATION FOUND:

• The number of potential computer matches to be reviewed by technicians "will be so large as to be impractical and will likely create logistical complications so great they cannot be effectively addressed."

• Linking the same weapon to different crimes will not link the gun to a particular shooter, especially in gang crimes where guns are frequently shared.

• "Cost effectiveness ... has not been documented nor researched." In six years, the Southern California database had 433 "cold hits" from 338 firearms; Sacramento County had 14 matches but no prosecutions; Oakland police had 37 matches and one conviction.

THE FEDERAL BUREAU RESPONDED:

• Computers can weed out more false matches and do it more quickly than the state study indicates, trimming the number to be reviewed by technicians to manageable levels.

• All types of firearms can be catalogued, contrary to the state study, though revolver cartridges are rarely left at crime scenes because they are not ejected when the weapon is fired.

• The state's tests on 792 California Highway Patrol pistols could have been skewed by using a commonly available ammunition that is too hard to clearly show many markings.

THE INDEPENDENT REVIEW FOUND:

• At least a third and as many as nearly two-thirds of weapons tested by the state did not produce usable results, depending on the type of ammunition that was tested. The test methodology was valid.

• Theoretically, a searchable database holds promise. Results could be improved by using different ammunition and by recording the markings made by firing several bullets from each weapon. FTI could improve its technology.

• The state should consider FTI's suggestion to start a two-year experimental program or should monitor the results of ballistics comparison programs in Maryland and New York.

Source: "Technical Evaluation: Feasibility of a Ballistics Imaging Database for All New Handgun Sales," California Department of Justice, Oct. 5, 2001; "Ballistic Imaging and Comparison of Crime Gun Evidence," federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, May 13, 2002; Review, Dr. Jan De Kinder, head of the Ballistics Section, National Institute for Forensic Science, Department of Justice, Belgium, undated.

ON THE WEB

Read SB35 at www.sen.ca.gov






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