Going Ballistic

going_ballisticJohn Allen Mohammed, half of the serial-killing duo collectively known as the "Beltway Sniper," got the Bushmaster XM15 rifle that he and Lee Malvo used to kill upwards of thirteen people from Bull's Eye Shooter Supply, the "Puget Sound's Largest Gun Shop." I say Mohammed "got" the weapon at the Bull's Eye because Brian Borgelt, the shop's owner, has no record of Mohammed ever purchasing the weapon. He has the empty box the rifle came in, but no receipts or other documentation about where the XM15 had gone. "We are a reputable company," Borgelt told The New York Times. "Our track record speaks for itself. We have been in business for nine years and I am proud of it."

He should be ashamed. The Times also reported that when the Bull's Eye was audited by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms two years ago, agents could not account for 150 guns.

When someone purchases a firearm, gun shop owners are supposed to have the customer fill out a federal form, and then send that form to the FBI so the agency can conduct a background check of the buyer. If a gun is stolen, then store owners are supposed to notify authorities within two days. If Borgelt or his employees had followed the correct procedures, they would have found out that Mohammed was barred from purchasing a firearm after he was placed under a restraining order in the spring of 2000.

Why don't more people know about Borgelt's criminal negligence? Chalk it up to the bizarre nature of gun control politics, where pro-control lobbies propose additional regulations when those in place are battered and leaking illegal weapons like a sieve. Thus, the national discussion is always about the latest proposed control, and not whether those controls have been effective in the past.

The Beltway Sniper is a case in point. After Mohammed and Malvo began their three-week killing spree in the D.C. area, the idea of ballistic fingerprinting was brought up by the USA Today editorial board and then Maryland gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Only two states—New York and Maryland—currently have ballistic fingerprint databases. Gun-control pundits argued that if the program were nationalized, Mohammed and Malvo would have been caught in a matter of days, not weeks.

But few pro-control opponents stopped to check whether ballistic fingerprinting had been successful in the past even in the areas where it has been implemented. John R. Lott makes clear in a recent issue of the National Review that not a single violent crime has been solved in either New York or Maryland as a result of ballistic fingerprinting to date.

The idea behind ballistic fingerprinting hinges on the way a gun operates: When a bullet is fired from a gun, it travels down the gun's barrel, which contains special grooves that make the bullet spin as it shoots out. No two guns' grooves are the same, which means that a bullet can be traced to the firearm from whence it came. In Maryland and New York, test rounds are fired from a weapon before it is purchased so that the weapon's ballistic signature can be tracked in a database. Once a bullet from a violent crime is recovered, authorities use special computer imaging technologies to match the bullet with its parent weapon.

At least, that's the way the system is supposed to work. But for the system to work successfully, a bullet must meet each of five criteria, none of which are guaranteed prospects.

First, a bullet must be recovered. Next, the bullet must come from a gun that was purchased in a state that has a ballistic fingerprinting database. Third, the bullet must have come from a firearm that was registered in the state where it was purchased. Fourth, the bullet must have come from a firearm with a barrel that has not been changed since registry. Changing gun barrels is easier then you think—the process is akin to changing one's car tires. Fifth, the registered firearm must have not been stolen since registry.

Even if the first four criteria were met successfully, it's a fact that most criminals use stolen weapons to commit crime. It's also true that the success of ballistic fingerprinting is conditional upon responsible gun shop owners who properly register their wares—and that is a risky prerequisite. Because the clerks at Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Washington, failed to do just that, Mohammed and Malvo's rifle would never have been in the ballistic fingerprinting database.

An ATF report indicates that ballistic fingerprinting might be a useful investigative tool. But so far ballistic fingerprinting has done little to solve crime in Maryland and New York. Yet pro-control pundits still feel that a national ballistic database is the next step in regulating guns, without any reference to the program's past failures. It's folly to think that ballistic fingerprinting would have solved the Beltway Sniper case, or have a measurable effect on national crime statistics even if it were effectively institutionalized nation-wide. Illegal guns will continue to slip through the system. No database can stop that.