Ballistic Fingerprinting: Can It Solve Crimes?

ByABC News
October 16, 2002, 12:42 PM

Oct. 16 -- One way investigators have been able to link the string of shootings in the Washington, D.C., area is by analyzing the slugs that felled the victims. Here's an explanation of the technique, called ballistic fingerprinting, and a look at the debate surrounding the method.

What Is It?

Investigators using ballistic fingerprinting analyze a fired bullet or casing for scratches under a microscope. The markings, which like fingerprints are unique to each weapon, are then compared with those found on bullets used in separate shootings. The analysis can link multiple bullets to a single weapon and possibly, the shooter.

Tracing Marks to the Killer

Advocates for gun control want to expand the resources of ballistics investigators by creating a national computerized system for tracing bullets and shell casings to the guns that fired them. The system would require manufacturers to test-fire new guns before selling them to stores. Data detailing markings left on bullets by each weapon would then be entered into a computerized system known as IBIS.

Proponents say a national ballistic fingerprinting system would allow investigators who have found a bullet or bullets at the scene of a crime to enter data about the bullet's markings into the database and then quickly retrieve possible gun matches. This information could help lead them to the gun's buyer and possibly the perpetrator.

"This would take you directly to the person who bought that gun originally," Jim Kessler, a spokesman for Americans for Gun Safety told ABCNEWS, "which could take you with one other step to the person who used it in a crime."

Too Flawed to Fund?

Opponents to the system argue implementing the record keeping system would be expensive and may not prove effective. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Tuesday that President Bush is unconvinced of the technology's accuracy and is concerned about gun owners' privacy. NRA representatives say that bullets and shell casings can be altered easily and such tampering can make the ballistic fingerprints useless.