Ballistic Fingerprints No Answer to Senseless Crimes

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The Colorado Freedom

Ballistic Fingerprints No Answer to Senseless Crimes

by Ari Armstrong, October 11, 2002

Sarah Brady's answer to crime is to divert law enforcement resources away from going after criminals, to cataloging and tracking over a hundred million peaceful American citizens.

Of course, some in law enforcement might respond that monitoring millions of law-abiding citizens is exactly what they want to do -- provided, of course, that their budgets are multiplied accordingly. BATF agents immediately politicized the D.C.-area murders by posing for the TV cameras with politically incorrect guns that might -- or might not -- be similar to the gun used by the murderer.

In addition to the horror of the loss of innocent lives, is the horror that the murders appear to be so senseless. If a spouse kills his or her partner's lover, at least we can grasp the motive. The Columbine murders were a sick and unjustifiable pretense at revenge. The lethal knifing in Boulder appears to have been motivated by some personal relationship gone wrong.

All murders are ghastly, horrible, and reprehensible. But there's an extra terror that goes with unsolved murders that seem to be totally random, lacking in any comprehensible motive. The murderer (or murderers) in the D.C. area seem to be motivated only by a general hatred of the world. It's possible, of course, that the murders are somehow linked to last year's terrorist attacks. But if reports are accurate that someone left the message, "I am God" -- and if the message was indeed left by the murderer -- then the murders seem to be those of a domestic terrorist motivated only by personal evil.

It would be comforting to think that all that is necessary to stop such horror is to pass a new law. Meanness is hereby banned! But we live in the real world, not in the utopian world of disarmament activists. Not only does feel-good legislation often fail to achieve desired results, it often achieves bad results. And the registration of peaceable American gun owners -- the proposal laid out by Brady and others -- would result in greater harm.

The October 10 Rocky Mountain News reprinted an article by Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune in which Page advocates "ballistic fingerprinting." "It would mean the test-firing of every gun before it is sold and the keeping of an electronic record of the markings that the weapons leave on the bullets or shell casings. That data could then be kept with the serial numbers of the guns, so that the guns used in the commission of a crime could be traced."

Page also argues, "[S]tate gun laws, which can be skirted by crossing state lines, are a lot less effective than national laws." Thus, Page claims the failure of existing gun restrictions provides the justification for expanding those restrictions. In this point, Page agrees with Brady. However, Page's proposal suffers from a glaring problem, from Brady's perspective: it doesn't account for all the guns that have already been purchased. That's why Brady thinks "ballistic fingerprints" (BFs) should be taken of all guns, not just newly sold ones:

We have also seen the limitations to ballistic fingerprinting laws in their current form. Only two states -- Maryland and New York -- require a record be kept of every new gun's ballistic fingerprint. Both states' laws are relatively new and apply only to handguns, not all long guns, which the weapon in this case almost surely is. These limitations speak to a need for a national ballistics fingerprinting law for all firearms. (

But obviously it wouldn't do any good to collect BFs if that information were not linked to specific buyers. I.e., Brady's proposal requires the registration of every gun owner in America.

Also incompatible with the BF system are private sales not tracked by the government. After all, if a gun may be purchased and then traded without registering the new owner, then a BF system could not generally provide police with much useful information. Of course, subjecting all gun sales to Brady registrations has long been the goal of disarmament groups.

So let's not be coy or beat around the bush: "ballistic fingerprinting" is just the latest code phrase for universal gun-owner registration. But that doesn't automatically imply it's a bad thing. Such a demonstration requires its own set of arguments.

Though it hardly matters to today's politicians, the U.S. Constitution prohibits federal gun-owner registration. Article I, Section 8 authorizes Congress only to "regulate Commerce... among the several States..." Though this power has been much-abused, it was intended only to allow Congress to "make regular" trade per se -- not interfere with trade. Today, Congress uses the commerce clause to prohibit some trades even within a single state. The Tenth Amendment explicitly states Congress cannot do anything that isn't explicitly authorized elsewhere.

The Fourth Amendment assures security "against unreasonable searches..." There's no possible way the AFT will be "reasonable" in its enforcement of universal gun-owner registration laws. The Fourteenth Amendment assures the "equal protection of the laws." A universal federal registration system would be inherently onerous and clumsy -- i.e., an infringement of our fundamental civil rights. Government databases are prone to abuse through incompetence, theft, and bribery. This particular registration program would discriminate against one class of citizens.

Of course, the Second Amendment states, "A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Though Brady specifically condemns "military-style" guns, those are precisely the types of guns protected by the Second Amendment.

Brady's proposal would require a massive diversion of law-enforcement resources to monitor every peaceable American gun owner. Every hour a law enforcement agent spends registering and tracking law-abiding Americans is an hour NOT spent going after criminals.

And, unlike their British counterparts, American gun owners are not likely to readily submit to universal registration. Thus, the chances that a database could be built in the first place is low, and the costs of building it in the face of mass resistance would be enormous.

But let us assume -- for a moment -- that registering American gun owners is possible. Even then, it would do little if anything to prevent crime.

First, criminals and people thinking of becoming criminals are not going to register themselves with the federal government. It is simply ridiculous to believe otherwise. So Brady would divert vast resources so that the federal government can monitor law-abiding citizens -- and not criminals.

And, as Alan Gottlieb points out in an October 7 editorial in USA Today, "Since the majority of armed criminals use stolen guns, tracing a gun to its original owner accomplishes nothing." Notably, handgun violence has increased in Britain following the handgun ban there -- criminals do not restrict themselves to legal markets.

Already the Brady program faces two obstacles: the chances of building a database in the first place are low, and the chances that such a database would track those guns likely to be used in crimes are low. But let's make the laughable assumption that a database could be created that contained those guns likely to be used for crime.

The program faces a third problem: any criminal with an I.Q. of 80 and a nail or other common household item can change the "ballistic fingerprint" of any gun within a matter of seconds.

(In fact, the "fingerprint" changes even through routine firing and through replacement of worn-out parts. Brady's program would presumably require gun owners to have all their guns re-printed on a regular basis, thereby making it enormously more costly and invasive for law-abiding citizens.)

William J. Vizzard, a former BATF agent who now serves as chair of the Division of Criminal Justice at California State University, Sacramento, also notes that BFs can be defeated in two other simple ways ( First, frangible bullets leave no fingerprint. (Any bullet is liable to break apart such that fingerprinting is impossible, and obviously shotgun pellets are not subject to fingerprinting ever.) Second, casings which are not ejected, or which are picked up, are not available for fingerprinting.

But, Page argues, "The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' fingerprinting network already is leading to convictions by linking firearms to separate crimes." However, many criminals don't care if their crimes are linked. The D.C.-area murderer seems to want everybody to know the crimes are linked. In general, serial murderers have little incentive to hide evidence that different crimes are linked to each other. Many do, however, have an incentive to hide evidence that any specific crime is linked to them. And the criminal-education camps known as prisons, along with other criminal networks, would immediately spread the word in the event Brady's program was implemented.

In short, there is little chance Brady's gun-owner registration program will be implemented via "ballistic fingerprinting" or any other pretext. If it is implemented, it won't work, and it will waste enormous resources -- resources that could otherwise be used to go after criminals. Unfortunately, while disarmament activists claim to want less violence, they ignore the injustice and the incompetence of their means, choosing instead to spout utopian nonsense.

Even as we focus on the horrible murders in the D.C. area, we should keep some context in mind. Hundreds of decent citizens -- thousands by more rigorous estimates -- used a gun in self-defense during the past few days. Gun owners have good reason to fear their registration -- in numerous other countries registration has led to confiscation. And in some cases, confiscation has preceded genocide.

On September 11, 2001, terrorists armed only with packing knives killed thousands of American citizens. But for American disarmament laws, armed passengers likely could have saved many of those lives. (Airports and airlines should be completely freed of federal intervention such that they are able to compete on the basis of safety.)

What, then, is the answer to senseless crimes, if not more legal restrictions? Unfortunately, the human race is not likely to ever completely prevent senseless crimes. Murderers have used fire, knives, stones, water, rope, cars, poisons, bombs, and countless other tools to take the lives of innocent people throughout the ages. No mere law is going to put an end to that.

Yet, even if no final answer is possible, there are some useful steps we can take. First, work on building our own strong families, and remove laws that encourage irresponsibility and thus leave some children adrift. Second, be vigilant against crime and willing to step in as private citizens and take appropriate action, even if this means something as simple as contacting appropriate authorities about possible evidence. Some will choose to carry a concealed handgun for self-defense. Third, remove laws that waste police resources, such as laws requiring the registration of peaceable gun owners and laws that target victimless "crimes." (Repealing drug prohibition would also eliminate violent black markets, thus reducing the U.S. homicide rate an estimated 20-40%.) Fourth, work on criminal justice reforms that simultaneously separate dangerous people from society and encourage reform rather than continued crime.

We need not make a choice between security and liberty. A free society is the safest possible society. Disarmament activists sing their Siren song and make impossible promises. If they succeed, we will lose both our freedom and our safety.

The Colorado Freedom