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Traceable Bullets

December 15, 2002 |
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Whenever a gun is fired, a unique set of microscopic markings are left on the bullets as they travel through the barrel. Bullet casings are similarly marked by the gun's "ejecton port." Why not use this information to help solve crimes? Entered into a national database, these ballistic "fingerprints" could be used to narrow the search for a weapon and its owner considerably. After all, it is far more common to recover bullets and casings at crime scenes than the guns themselves. "What a fabulous opportunity it would be to have a system that gave you the make, model and possibly the purchaser of a gun, just from a shell casing ejected at the crime scene," Randy Rossi, the director of the firearms division of California's Department of Justice, told The Times in October. "It would be just like a criminal leaving his license plate at the crime scene."

Ballistics fingerprinting got a sudden publicity boost this fall during the Washington-area sniping spree. "If police in the sniper case could have traced the gun to the shop in Tacoma, Wash., where it was bought," says Matt Bennett of Americans for Gun Safety, "they would have been able to start looking in the Tacoma area much earlier." Xavier Becerra, a Democratic congressman in California, has introduced federal legislation to create a bullet-identification system, and several states, including New Jersey, California, Connecticut and Massachusetts, began weighing their own versions of such laws. The idea is not entirely new. Since 1996, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has used a bullet-identification system to compare bullets or shell casings from guns used in crimes. Indeed, the A.T.F. is proud enough of its success with the system to run a feature on its Web site called "Hits of the Week," which highlights crimes solved through ballistics identification.

What's different about the newest proposals is the idea of creating a national database that would contain information about almost all new handguns and rifles -- not just those used in crimes. (A gun would be test-fired by a manufacturer before it was shipped for sale, say, and a digital image of its unique markings would be submitted to law enforcement.) That prospect is deeply offensive to gun owners' groups, of course, but that may not be enough to quell the idea. It's true, as the N.R.A. crowd will tell you, that if a gun is stolen, tracing the owner through a national ballistics registry won't be enough to disclose the perp. But "most guns used in crimes are not stolen," says Jim Crandall, a spokesman for the A.T.F. "A whole lot of guns are bought retail, and criminals like to use new guns."

Besides, even if a gun was stolen, finding out where and from whom is likely to give investigators some leads. It's true, too, that markings a gun leaves on bullets can change over hundreds or thousands of firings -- but not nearly as much as skeptics of ballistics fingerprinting have claimed. A single visit to "Hits of the Week" offers all the proof you need.

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