Fear of Fingerprinting

There's a form of gun regulation that could save thousands of lives a year. If we weren't so paranoid, we'd adopt it.
by | January 2003

What's always impressed me about the opponents of gun regulation is their amazing ability to change the subject and play off Americans' deep-seated fear of government itself. They can make tens of millions of us believe that federal, state or local officials are liable to go fascist, requiring vigilant citizens to bring out the six-shooter and hold off their mayor/governor/senator as he/she tries to consolidate his/her power base by confiscating the garage and its full contents. Certainly, gun law opponents are effective political operatives, funneling millions of dollars to political candidates. But I don't think that's what ultimately makes them effective. What ultimately makes them effective is us: We're afraid of government.

This all comes to mind as several states consider ballistic fingerprinting laws in the wake of the Washington, D.C.-area sniper attacks this past fall. Ballistic fingerprinting involves matching bullets casings and bullets to the guns that fired them. Firing pins and gun barrels differ from each other significantly enough that they score the bullets in unique (and traceable) ways.

Under the proposed laws, new guns would be test-fired and the fingerprints stored in a database. If law enforcement officials have access to test firings, they can link casings and bullets recovered at a crime scene to the gun that fired them, providing at least a partial lead as to the shooter. At the moment, only New York and Maryland have such laws, and in each case they apply only to handguns.

The real breakthrough would be a federal ballistic fingerprinting law. And it is the prospect of such a law that is attracting the fiercest kind of opposition from gun advocates.

The anti-fingerprinting arguments are a curious mixture. First, it is said, the process is unreliable. According to the National Rifle Association, "there's a serious debate within the law enforcement community on whether such ballistic 'fingerprinting' is reliable." That's an interesting argument to try to make in the wake of the sniper case: The succession of shootings that terrorized the Washington suburbs over a three-week period were tied together definitively through ballistic matchups. Later, the gun in question was linked to shootings all across the country. The fact of the matter is that law enforcement officials have been very good at tying guns to crimes through ballistics tests. Such tests also have proven to regularly hold up in court. When did they become unreliable?

There is also the argument that, with millions of guns in circulation, it's pointless to start fingerprinting them now. "For ballistic fingerprinting to work as proposed," the NRA says, "all 200 million firearms lawfully possessed by Americans are brought into labs and fired to gather individual ballistic 'fingerprinting.'" Here the NRA's thinking is as sloppy as its syntax: With millions of new guns going into circulation each year, it obviously makes sense to start somewhere on fingerprinting.

The point is made, of course, that even in places where ballistic fingerprinting is required, hundreds of fatal shootings still take place every year: 336 in Maryland during 2001, for example. Many of those shots are fired by weapons that remained unfingerprinted in spite of the law. But this isn't an argument against ballistic fingerprinting; it's an argument against applying it haphazardly. Guns from Virginia, with extremely lax regulations, frequently and freely roll north into neighboring Maryland and on to New York, where they can be fired without much risk of identifying the owner.

Under a federal fingerprinting law, every gun sold would be fingerprinted, regardless of the state in which it was purchased. Guns bought in Virginia and used in a crime in New York could be traced routinely and effectively.

Certainly it doesn't hurt for states to pass their own ballistic- fingerprinting laws. That way law enforcement authorities at least can begin to put together a database of test firings, and the strengths of fingerprinting (and weaknesses, for that matter), can be demonstrated even more graphically than they have been so far. But state action will always be secondary to a federal statute, one that covers not only handguns but also rifles, particularly high-powered rifles such as the one used in the D.C.-area murders.

The chances that this will happen anytime soon are just about nil, however. Within a few weeks, the horror of the D.C. sniper attacks began to fade from the consciousness of the American public, replaced by the long-lingering fear that a government doing something as modest and sensible as cataloging bullet fragments is a government poised to strike serious blows at individual liberty.

It's a very odd attitude and I'm not sure how to challenge it, except to suggest for what feels like the thousandth time that those in public service--from town supervisors to U.S. senators--aren't some breed of demon roaming in our midst waiting for their opportunity to seize control. It is necessary to keep making that point, not because it is easy to get across but because it is the truth.