Gaps in Law May Have Aided Snipers

It took a month for authorities to learn that a fingerprint left at a murder scene in Montgomery, Ala., belonged to sniper suspect John Lee Malvo — a month in which 11 more people were killed. Why did it take so long? Because Alabama, like 30 other states, does not have a computerized link to compare crime scene prints to those in federal databases.

The data is kept at a large FBI facility outside of Clarksburg, W.Va. Supercomputers there can compare 3,000 fingerprints per second. There are 44 million sets of prints on file.

FBI officials say it is relatively easy for states to hook up to the system. Michael Kirkpatrick, the FBI assistant director in charge of the facility, says it can be done for "probably under $5,000." He says the sniper case has sparked more interest in the system.

"We have seen several states contact us since then to make the arrangements to connect with us," he says. Alabama is among them.

There are problems not only getting information to the states, but from the states.

Getting Information From Local Authorities Is Slow Going

The same FBI facility that stores fingerprints handles background checks for gun sales. Gun dealers are required to find out if prospective buyers have criminal records, mental problems or, like sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, court-issued retraining orders. But the FBI depends on local police departments and courts for that information.

"Many of them are still operating in a pen-and-pencil environment — ledger books, case files stored in off-site boxes and that type of thing — and it makes it very difficult to retrieve that information," says Kirkpatrick.

It can take months, even years, and, in some cases, the information doesn't reach the FBI at all.

Not only are there frequently gaps in checking out the buyer's background, but no one at the FBI center is told how many guns are being purchased or what kind of guns or their serial numbers. Only the dealer knows that and dealers are policed by another agency: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

ATF officials say they do the best they can with their resources. But those resources are very limited. There are 104,000 licensed gun dealers in the United States and only 532 ATF inspectors.

"We have far too few agents and far too few inspectors at ATF to do the job they need to do," says Joseph Vince, a former ATF official.

Even when problems are found, there are few penalties. In the past three years, only 45 gun dealers have had their licenses revoked.

The ATF is now focusing on the Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Wash. ATF agents there have found no record indicating how the rifle used in the sniper shootings — a Bushmaster XM-15 — got into Muhammad's hands. In fact, agents reportedly have been unable to find records for more than 300 guns at the shop. An audit of the same shop two years ago found records missing for 150 guns.

The sniper case has exposed gaps in the ability to track guns and gaps in tracking fingerprints — the kind of problems that could affect other cases across the country.