Friday, October 25, 2002
IN MY OPINION(Column)
Guns: Guilty Until Proven Innocent?
By RAY HAYNES
(The writer represents the 36th Senate District, which includes western Riverside County and northern San Diego County. He is also the Senate Republican whip.)
With the serial killings in the Washington, D.C., area a focus of attention nationwide, many have taken note of ballistic “fingerprinting” for the first time. Each of the shootings has been linked to a single gun by a relatively new technology that looks for microscopic marks on the recovered bullets.
Every rifle or handgun leaves unique marks on bullets when they are fired, and by comparing bullets, you can frequently prove that they were fired by a particular gun. With evidence linking all of the shootings to a single gun, there have been many who have openly called for a system that would allow us to link any bullet to a particular gun and its owner, in essence a national database of the ballistic fingerprint of every gun on the market.
While this seems like a straightforward and simple idea, the reality is more complicated than that. Maintaining a database of bullets found at crime scenes has been a valuable tool and has resulted in convictions of criminals. Trying to create a national database of all the rifles and handguns, however, would be a massive undertaking and the federal government is now considering a study to determine the feasibility and value of such a program. California recently completed just such a study of ballistic identification systems that was requested by an anti-gun legislature, signed by an anti-gun governor and overseen by an anti-gun attorney general.
The results were not what they intended, I’m sure. In California alone, more than 100,000 handguns per year (not including revolvers) are sold. In five years the database would hold over a half million cartridge images, and would still represent only a fraction of the guns that are in circulation. It is estimated that there are more than 200 million firearms in circulation nationwide, almost none of which are currently in any database. The summary of the report states that “automated computer matching systems do not provide conclusive results,” and that the number of hits on a suspect cartridge “will be so large as to be impractical and will likely create logistic complications so great they cannot be effectively addressed.”
Remember, this is a study only dealing with guns in California. A national system would be exponentially worse.
Another problem with this system is the ease in which it could be defeated.
Unlike real fingerprints or DNA in humans, ballistic fingerprints are easily changed. Barrels are easily changed in many guns and even existing barrels can have their identifying marks changed by the use of a wire brush or even frequent shooting and cleaning. The file on a newly sold gun could be useless within months of purchase if the gun were fired and cleaned regularly.
Furthermore, there is no national registration of firearms (nor should there be, for reasons too lengthy to discuss here), so even in the unlikely event you could get a match on a ballistic fingerprint, there would be no way to track that gun to even the original owner, much less the shooter himself.
Even with such a registration system, given how rarely guns are legally bought by criminals (and never by felons), the likelihood of being able to trace the guns to the shooters would be slim to none.
Maintaining databases of bullets and casings found at crime scenes makes sense, just as maintaining fingerprints and DNA samples of criminals and crime scenes makes sense, but no one has actually proposed a national DNA databank of law-abiding citizens to run against physical evidence found at crime scenes. I guarantee we could solve a lot of crimes today if we were to require everyone to give a DNA sample the next time they got their driver’s license renewed or at birth when they issue the birth certificate. Any physical evidence left at a crime could instantly be matched to the national DNA database to nab the criminals. Since DNA can’t be changed, it would be more reliable than the ballistic identification.
No one is pushing for this system because it would be considered an invasion of privacy and a violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution. We live in a system where we are considered innocent until proven guilty. If the police have probable cause to suspect our involvement in a crime, they have the right to fingerprint us, take a DNA sample or check the ballistic identification of our guns. If they don’t have probable cause, they don’t.
This is really no different. There are practical, utilitarian, and constitutional reasons why neither sort of database is appropriate, and it has nothing to do with the Second Amendment and little to do with opposition to gun control. We don’t treat people like criminals until we have reason to do so, and we shouldn’t treat guns and law abiding gun owners any differently.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company