Could the Beltway Sniper
be Stopped by Gun Control?
Capitol Hill -- If the United States had a federal law requiring so-called
"ballistic fingerprinting" of every firearm in the country,
could police have already caught the murderer coming to be known as
the "Beltway sniper"?
Friday, Oct. 11, 2002
That is the assertion in a message sent to supporters of the group
formerly known as Handgun Control, Inc.
"As police try to track down and stop this killer, we do know
this: sensible gun laws can help law enforcement solve crimes as
well as prevent gun violence," wrote Sarah Brady, chairwoman
of the Brady Campaign.
Brady noted that ballistic comparisons of the bullets recovered
from the victims' bodies had helped authorities link several of
"[But] we have also seen the limitations to ballistic fingerprinting
laws in their current form," she continued, complaining that
the laws are only in force in two states, only cover newly purchased
weapons, and only apply to handguns.
"These limitations speak to a need for a national ballistics
fingerprinting law for all firearms," Brady argued.
She also used the letter to begin lobbying for a continuation of
the federal ban on certain types of military-looking firearms, commonly
referred to by opponents of their ownership as "assault weapons,"
and to solicit funds for her organization.
Americans for Gun Safety (AGS), a group founded by former
Handgun Control, Inc. board member Andrew McKelvey, also
supports universal ballistic fingerprinting. Matt Bennett,
spokesman for the group, said the idea behind the process is similar
to that of fingerprinting.
"A particular set of markings [on a bullet] can be matched
to all the other [ballistic records] in the system and the top five
or six matches come up and then a human expert will look at them
and determine if there's a real match," he explained.
AGS argues that the system is accurate even if someone intentionally
tries to alter a weapon, or subjects it to heavy use.
"It can degrade slightly, but it is still recognizable,"
Bennett claimed. "The metaphor we're using is it's like having
a scratch on a record. It does degrade the quality of the sound,
but it's still a recognizable sound."
Kevin Watson, legislative director for the Law Enforcement
Alliance of America (LEAA) - a coalition of current and former
law enforcement officers and citizen supporters - disagrees.
"It sounds really neat when you hear just the basic description
of it, but when you go into the description of how it would actually
work," he said, "it kind of falls apart."
Watson said the "ballistic fingerprint" of a weapon will
change over time, and can be altered intentionally.
"In a lot of firearms, you can replace the equipment that
leaves these marks," he said, "and, as the firearm is
used on occasion, that degrades the marks that are left and sometimes
can change them."
Watson described the lack of a basis for comparing ballistic markings
to human fingerprints.
"Imagine a fingerprint database where people can switch their
fingerprints and their own fingerprints wear down over time after
use," he added. "It makes it not that useful of a system."
Attorney Lisa Steele, who specializes in appellate criminal
defense cases, agreed. She said it would be relatively easy for
a ballistics examiner to make a mistake.
"A recovered bullet has been through a lot. It's gone down
a gun barrel, it's been fired into something. It's chipped. It's
damaged. It's fragmented," Steele explained.
Interpreting the Markings
She said examiners are trained to expect some of the marking on
two bullets fired from the same weapon not to match. They are also
told, Steele said, to expect many markings to match on two bullets
fired from two different weapons of the same caliber and model.
"They're trained to do this. They observe this in the lab,"
she said. "What the training standards say is, eventually you
develop a 'gut instinct' for which of these striation matches are
important and which of them aren't."
Steele calls the phenomenon of seeing matches that don't really
exist "suggestion bias," explaining that the examiners
are not intentionally giving false reports, they simply "expect
to confirm what they already believe."
Investigators can also bias ballistics examiners, she claimed,
by sharing too much information about a case or the evidence being
"You know some things won't match. You know some things will.
You have to make a 'gut,' instinctive decision, and in the back
of your head, somebody has given you information that it's supposed
to match," Steele said. "Odds are, you're going to say
it does match."
The biggest part of the problem, she added, is that unlike classifying
human fingerprints, there is no objective reference standard for
Images of human fingerprints can be laid one on top of the other
and the number of points of similarity can be counted, Steele explained.
In most jurisdictions, criminal judges have established the minimum
number of points of similarity that they will accept to validate
a fingerprint match.
"There's no such objective measure for ballistic fingerprints,"
Watson said another failing of ballistic fingerprints opponents
of armed self-defense often ignore is the sheer number of firearms
already in private hands in the United States.
"If you were just to do new firearms, that basically means
that there would be 200 million firearms that would not be traceable
in this system," he explained. "Any criminal would know
or would learn that if they wanted to make sure their gun was not
traceable in the new system, they would simple make sure they were
using a gun that was made before the enactment of the system."
Watson speculated that law-abiding gun owners might not be willing
to bring their weapons in for ballistic fingerprinting because of
the de facto registration of gun owners such a system would create.
He also disputed Brady's claim that the so-called "assault
weapons" ban - which actually banned military-looking semi-automatic
firearms, not fully-automatic assault weapons - could have had any
effect on the sniper's armament.
"They could be using a gun that they could lawfully purchase
today in Maryland, even if the 'assault weapons' ban is in place
or renewed," Watson argued. "The notion that, if we renew
this ban then we'll somehow pretend to keep certain guns off the
street is really kind of nonsense."
Brady's attempt to capitalize on the murders to promote her anti-Second
Amendment agenda is "quite honestly shameless," Watson
said, especially while police are still looking for the sniper.
"This is a group that, every time tragedy happens, they jump
out and say 'We need these [gun control laws] we need these,"
he alleged. "It's not really all that surprising to see it
happen, but it's still shameless."
The premise that a gun control law could somehow affect the behavior
of a murderer is puzzling to Watson.
"It's just a nonsense comment to say that somebody is going
to break the law about murder, but obey the law about which tools
they can use," he said. "It's pretty obvious that people
who are not influenced by laws banning murder aren't going to be
too influenced by laws banning what tools of murder they can use."
Both Watson and Steele believe that, once a suspect is in custody
and ballistics examiners can compare his or her weapon to the bullets
and shell casings recovered at the crime scenes, authorities will
be able to use that evidence to aid in obtaining a conviction.