Ballistics database still needed

February 02, 2005|By Michael D. Barnes

YOU WOULDN'T scrap a major clinical trial of a life-saving medicine after a month because you haven't yet proved the medicine works. You wouldn't change a quarter of the oil in your car. And it would be foolish for Maryland to abandon efforts to build a ballistics fingerprinting database at the project's infancy.

The Maryland State Police, in a report that smacks of politically ideological motivations, has criticized the Integrated Ballistics Identification System, created by legislation in 2000, for having traced only six bullets to the weapons used to fire them. The police superintendent, Col. Thomas E. Hutchins, is not in favor of the project.

But IBIS is promising, and the premise is simple: Collect records of the unique markings that are left on a bullet when it is fired from a specific gun and, over time, the resulting database will be one way to identify the gun used in an unsolved crime. If such a system existed in the state of Washington, for example, the origin of the gun used by the D.C. -area snipers might have been discovered after the first shooting.

The Maryland system has only started the cataloguing of shells from new guns, so it would be very surprising for the project to have paid immense dividends this rapidly.

In addition, the system is not easily accessible by any law enforcement office except the state police, who investigate far fewer gun crimes than do city and other local police jurisdictions. Indeed, many police experts recommend the creation of a national database -- moving forward with a promising investigative tool rather than backward, which terminating the Maryland system would represent.

The money spent on IBIS, about $2.6 million, represents a down payment on a system that will help solve gun crimes in the future. The National Rifle Association has been opposed to ballistics fingerprinting efforts like this since the technology was pioneered for the same reason it opposes background checks for gun purchases and any other rational records related to gun transactions -- because they can be used to track ownership of firearms. The NRA is using the state police criticism of IBIS to try to kill the project, aided by a handful of rural state legislators who fear crossing the gun lobby.

The responsible move for Maryland would be to keep collecting records and improve access to the database. The start-up costs have been paid. It makes no sense to drop the project now that it will incur less cost.

The reality is that state police criticisms likely have little to do with policy and everything to do with ideology. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., as an NRA-backed candidate, said if elected he would review all of Maryland's gun laws and scrap the ones he could argue didn't have a significant impact.

If Mr. Hutchins and Governor Ehrlich kill the ballistics project, they will be misusing public money -- money that has been spent building a system that the Ehrlich administration wants to see fail.

That's dumb and bad management, and the ultimate beneficiaries of such shortsightedness would be the future criminals who are not caught by a system that promises to make Maryland a safer place to live.

Michael D. Barnes, a former Democratic congressman from Maryland, is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

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