On October 21, during the hysteria of the D.C. sniper attacks, the Washington Times reported that California Attorney General Bill Lockyer had hushed up a report by state ballistics experts that accurate ballistic fingerprinting is not feasible nor likely to be soon. The tests failed to match cartridges with the guns they were fired from 62 percent of the time. That comes as no surprise to Ron Godwin, manager of the El Cajon Gun Exchange.
While Lockyer has been one of the state's biggest advocates of a ballistics database for "fingerprinting" guns, Godwin says that such measures would not only be a waste of money but impotent at stopping crime, since any gun can be altered with relative ease to change its ballistic print.
Godwin opens up a plastic case containing a new pistol. The gun comes with an envelope containing a cartridge case from a bullet that had been fired from the gun. "When Ruger sent us these guns, they had these little brown envelopes inside of them. It has a lot of information on the gun -- in terms of serial number and so forth -- and this fired case. It came with the instruction that we were supposed to get it to local law enforcement. Come to find out, there was a new Maryland state law that called for what they call 'ballistic fingerprinting.' That's a misnomer. Ballistic fingerprinting would deal with the bullet, the projectile. This is the case -- more of an internal ballistics fingerprinting, if you will. I'm sure the forensic guys have some other names for it."
Godwin takes the gun apart. "The bottom line is, many of these guns can be field-stripped without any tools. If I want to clean this gun after I fire it, I can take the barrel out of the gun. Now, when they talk about the marks that the gun leaves on that cartridge case, they're talking about the marks that might be present inside this chamber, where the cartridge would fit. If there are scratches or marks on this recoil portion of the slide, the case head would push against this hard enough to transfer those marks onto the case as a mirror image. Also, the hole that's there is where the firing pin would come out and hit, so this fired case -- which has this mark you see here, this indentation on the silver center, or primer -- this indentation was made by the firing pin."
Godwin continues, "Now, if I took this gun and shot somebody with it or fired a round into the ceiling robbing a store and left the shell casing behind, that's a clue for law enforcement. But is it useful? Sure. It tells us that it was a nine millimeter. In some cases we can look at it and figure it came from a Glock, a gun most cops carry. If I can do that, then I can eliminate my search from a huge universe of nine-millimeter handguns down to a smaller universe of Glocks. But that 'small' universe is absolutely huge. There are probably millions of Glocks out there, and the civilians probably own more Glocks than the cops do. If the cops can narrow it down to me and knock on my door, get a search warrant, find the gun, shoot it and check the ballistics, get a match, they have a good case. That's nice. But it doesn't always work out that way."
Ballistic "fingerprinting" is far more difficult. "What they're talking about with ballistic fingerprinting is taking one of these little brown envelopes to the local police department for every gun we sell, and we sell probably 400 to 500 guns a month. The police have no clue who it was sold to. If we include the information on the buyer when we give them the envelope, it would be no less daunting a task than if we told every mechanic that every time they sell tires, we want a sample tire tread, and we want to know whose vehicle you put it on, including VIN number, license number, and the registered owner's name and address. Is that going to be useful data? Probably not."
The morning Godwin and I spoke, John Allen Muhammad had just been arrested in Maryland. "Take the East Coast sniper," Godwin says. "How long would it take them to go through all their records of every 223 [rifle] case that they had to figure out which one this thing matched? How many resources are we going to spend before we figure out which gun this came out of? How many guns are there out there that wouldn't have it? Tons of them, and 99.99 percent haven't been used in any crimes or killed anybody."
Even if such a tedious system worked, beating it would be easy. "I can buy another barrel for cash without leaving a paper trail. Or I can come along with a little sandpaper or emery cloth and polish this out and alter it. I can take this extractor, which leaves a mark on the case, and replace it. In fact, these are parts that normally wear out in the normal course of a gun's life and will be replaced, sometimes several times. I can change the extractor with a file to make a different mark on it without replacing it. I can take the firing pin out and modify it or replace it. If I do these things, what do we have for a ballistic mark on this cartridge casing? It's a different gun.
"Ballistic fingerprinting would waste a tremendous amount of resources chasing every nine millimeter -- or, in the case of the sniper, every 223 rifle casing -- in the state. Take the sniper they just caught. If they fingerprinted every rifle on the eastern seaboard -- and let's say this guy didn't swap any parts of his gun out, and say he didn't bring his gun in from Washington state -- you're looking at a statistical universe that is absolutely oppressive. This isn't stored on a computer disk where you can get it up in a few minutes. This is going to tie up resources and people, and they will be looking for something that probably doesn't exist, because anybody with half a brain is going to change some of the parts."