State police report opposes expanding gun database

Ballistics system has flaws, crime lab director says

November 07, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

After finding substantial problems with the state's ballistic fingerprinting database, Maryland State Police have recommended that it not be expanded.

A 40-page report by the director of the agency's crime lab concludes, among other things, that the ballistic samples on file are often not from the type of guns used by criminals, and that the state system is not linked to the national database.

"In spite of these problems, it is recommended that [the database] continue in operation," the report concludes. "This database, like the DNA statewide database, needs time to develop before it bears fruit."

Ballistic fingerprinting - the method of tracking unique markings made by a gun on a bullet - became a prominent issue in the last Maryland legislative session when Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose and the mother of a victim of the Washington-area serial sniper pushed for tougher measures to control gun crime.

State police have maintained a database of handgun casings, which are provided by gun manufacturers, since 2000. And gun control advocates hoped the state would pass legislation expanding the database to include rifles and shotguns.

But because of problems with the Integrated Ballistics Identification System and the projected $2.2 million cost of expanding it, state police are recommending that the state not enact new legislation.

"The MD-IBIS Systems needs to be monitored further with handguns to ensure that its intended purpose is being met," state police crime lab Director Jay Tobin Jr. concluded in the report, which was submitted to the Senate Budget and Taxation and House Appropriations committees last month.

The database - which has cost $2.1 million over the past three years - has generated four matches, and in each case, police already had the gun they were trying to trace, according to the report.

Although CeaseFire Maryland was one of the groups that pushed for expanding the database this year, Executive Director Leah Barrett agreed with the state police conclusion. "I think they need to get this thing working before they expand it," she said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is maintaining his position that the ballistic fingerprinting database needs to be studied further, his spokeswoman, Shareese N. DeLeaver, said yesterday.

"This is about evaluation of, not the elimination of, the ballistic fingerprinting," she said.

Among the problems identified in the report: Some casings submitted by manufacturer Glock have not been reliable; the casings submitted by gun manufacturers are not usually from the type of guns linked to crime scenes; and the state's database cannot be linked with the national database.

The biggest problem, according to Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, is that only 160 casings have been compared to the database since 2000. "Baltimore City police collect that number probably within a month," he said.

Webster said the equipment used to access the national database can't be used to get into Maryland's because of legal barriers. He said he has asked the Maryland attorney general for an opinion on the matter.

However, gun rights advocates say there are bigger problems with the system. "For one thing, it hasn't helped solve any crimes," said Roy Tarbutton, former vice president of the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association.

James M. Purtilo, author of Tripwire, a political newsletter advocating gun rights, said he wished the state had studied the system before implementing it. The state police report "is like a proud parent trying to put a best face on a child's failing grades," he said.

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