Ballistic Database Threatens Public Safety
by Ari Armstrong, October 24, 2002
By now, the reasons why a ballistic markings database on new or all guns would fail to stop crime have been fairly widely published. Less well known are the reasons why such a registration database might actually pose a threat to public safety.
A ballistic markings database (BMD) is sometimes misleadingly said to "fingerprint" a gun. Of course mechanical tools do not really have "fingerprints." Instead, the barrel of a rifle or handgun sometimes leaves a distinctive marking on a bullet. Likewise, the chamber (base of the barrel), ejecting mechanism, and firing pin can leave distinctive markings on the brass casing of a round of ammunition.
Criminals often use stolen guns to commit crimes. But sometimes the victim of theft may not know about it right away -- say, if the criminal broke into a second home or cabin to steal a gun. In addition, a report of the crime may not reach the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the agency likely to employ the BMD.
The ATF is not known for its discretion -- quite the opposite. This agency, made infamous by its role in the lethal raids at Waco and Ruby Ridge, has been involved in numerous questionable and deadly raids. David Kopel and Paul Blackman devote a few pages of their book "No More Wacos" to those abuses, then add, "BATF abuses could literally supply material for an entire book."
The bottom line is that a BMD could result in ATF-led raids on innocent gun owners, wherein black-clad agents with facemasks and assault rifles bust down the door and force the occupants to the floor at gunpoint. That's a dangerous situation, especially if you're the innocent gun owner.
But stolen guns are not the only problem. A criminal could easily go to a shooting range or other location and collect used brass casings. The criminal could then pick up his or her own brass and drop the brass of the innocent gun owner. This could result in the innocent gun owner being raided and framed for the crime.
Criminals can also use forged or stolen ID papers to buy a gun. Of course a BMD can also result in "false positives" -- markings close enough to those of another gun that they trigger a database match.
Who is going to pay for the BMD? Part of the cost will be passed on to law-abiding gun buyers. For the poor, significantly increasing the cost of a gun can mean depriving them of a tool for self-defense. Unfortunately, the poor tend to live in higher crime areas, where lack of a self-defense tool is most dangerous. In his study of concealed handgun permits, economist John Lott found that increased fees associated with gun ownership also increase violent crime rates.
A BMD would also divert law-enforcement resources away from going after criminals, to tracking and monitoring law-abiding citizens.
So far, we have looked at the immediate costs and potential dangers of a BMD. There may be long-term risks as well.
For a number of reasons, a BMD is not likely to stop crime. A BMD for new guns will not track the quarter-billion guns now in existence. Guns can be stolen. Brass casings can be stolen. Even if they're ejected, casings can be picked up. Bullets often disintegrate on impact. Gun parts can be easily replaced, totally altering the markings. Routine use alters the markings. Criminals can alter the markings in a few seconds with anything that will scratch or abrade. Criminals can switch to shotguns, which don't leave unique markings.
Some may take the fact that the BMD doesn't work as evidence that the system should be expanded. This could lead to more onerous regulations for law-abiding gun owners. Because routine use and gun repairs alter the markings, some may call on the BATF to monitor such activity. Will owners be required to have their guns tested every few months? Will simple gun repairs and alterations also be subject to retesting?
A BMD could spawn a web of ambiguous laws that would turn many thousands of peaceable gun owners into law-breakers. This would again subject good people to overzealous law enforcement, as well as to politically-motivated prosecutions.
The inevitable failure of a BMD might also prompt calls to expand the system to every legally-owned gun in America. A broad BMD is a system to register all law-abiding American gun owners.
The concern that registration leads to confiscation is not just the paranoid fear of gun owners. It is instead the explicit goal of many disarmament activists who now favor a BMD. In other countries such as Australia and England, as well as in parts of the United States such as New York and California, the registration of certain guns has indeed led to the confiscation of those guns.
Right now, law enforcement has the ability to test ballistics of bullets and casings associated with a crime against guns suspected of use in the crime. Such a limited use of ballistics, one that doesn't register law-abiding gun owners, is marginally helpful to law enforcement without imposing serious costs on others.
A general BMD for new guns or all guns would not contribute to law-enforcement's ability to stop crime. It would only put peaceable Americans at risk.