a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Renewed shot in original direction: periodic ballistic registration

Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 18th, 2002

It turns out that fellow DC area blogger Doug Turnbull (“Beauty of Gray”) has been addressing some of the same gun-related issues I have, and originally adopted many of the positions I independently developed over the last week or so. But in a post titled “Final shot, in the other direction,” he drops support for ballistic fingerprinting, having been convinced of some practical difficulties:

Gun barrel dimensions are accurate to at best 0.001 inches and most are far less precise. The markings are caused by flaws that are 20-100x smaller.

So, one could easily remove 2-5x as much material as would be required to change the markings without even taking a very good gun out of “as good as new” condition.

This is true, and appears to clinch the case against “ballistic fingerprinting.” Indeed, I’ll concede that “fingerprinting” has always been too strong a word for the idea; let’s rechristen it “ballistic registration.” Still, I think Mr. Turnbull gave up a little too soon on the concept. Here’s why:

  • The problem of defaced guns would be reduced, or at least substantively reframed, by requiring periodic (say quarterly or semiannual) re-registration of gun ballistics. (I mentioned this in my first post on the subject.) Missing guns or ones with substantially different ballistics would be red flags for law enforcement, at least providing additional probable cause for further investigation. Thus even cold-blooded killers like the sniper stalking the DC area would be confronted with the certainty of coming to the attention of authorities, regardless of the defacement or disposal of their weapons. Less cold-blooded killers would face an important threshold in carrying out a murder: the provable decision to conceal their deed.
  • Many (my guess is most) crimes committed with guns will continue to be unpremeditated, “heat of the moment” crimes; the guns will not be defaced, and the proposed system will help.
  • The ballistics registration program can improve technologically, e.g., with required manufacturer-side measures (i.e., distinctive “dare you to remove this” measures) or with improved methods of overcoming defacement.
  • For the remaining gun-related crimes committed with successfully defaced and/or discarded guns, we’d simply be no worse off than we are now in terms of solving the crime.

And with this, I’ll likely move on to other topics for a while myself.

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