On October 21, during the hysteria of the D.C. sniper attacks, the Washington Times reported that California Attorney General Bill Lockyer had hushed up a report by state ballistics experts that accurate ballistic fingerprinting is not feasible nor likely to be soon. The tests failed to match cartridges with the guns they were fired from 62 percent of the time. That comes as no surprise to Ron Godwin, manager of the El Cajon Gun Exchange.
While Lockyer has been one of the state's biggest advocates of a ballistics database for "fingerprinting" guns, Godwin says that such measures would not only be a waste of money but impotent at stopping crime, since any gun can be altered with relative ease to change its ballistic print.
Godwin opens up a plastic case containing a new pistol. The gun comes with an envelope containing a cartridge case from a bullet that had been fired from the gun. "When Ruger sent us these guns, they had these little brown envelopes inside of them. It has a lot of information on the gun -- in terms of serial number and so forth -- and this fired case. It came with the instruction that we were supposed to get it to local law enforcement. Come to find out, there was a new Maryland state law that called for what they call 'ballistic fingerprinting.' That's a misnomer. Ballistic fingerprinting would deal with the bullet, the projectile. This is the case -- more of an internal ballistics fingerprinting, if you will. I'm sure the forensic guys have some other names for it."
Godwin takes the gun apart. "The bottom line is, many of these guns can be field-stripped without any tools. If I want to clean this gun after I fire it, I can take the barrel out of the gun. Now, when they talk about the marks that the gun leaves on that cartridge case, they're talking about the marks that might be present inside this chamber, where the cartridge would fit. If there are scratches or marks on this recoil portion of the slide, the case head would push against this hard enough to transfer those marks onto the case as a mirror image. Also, the hole that's there is where the firing pin would come out and hit, so this fired case -- which has this mark you see here, this indentation on the silver center, or primer -- this indentation was made by the firing pin."
Godwin continues, "Now, if I took this gun and shot somebody with it or fired a round into the ceiling robbing a store and left the shell casing behind, that's a clue for law enforcement. But is it useful? Sure. It tells us that it was a nine millimeter. In some cases we can look at it and figure it came from a Glock, a gun most cops carry. If I can do that, then I can eliminate my search from a huge universe of nine-millimeter handguns down to a smaller universe of Glocks. But that 'small' universe is absolutely huge. There are probably millions of Glocks out there, and the civilians probably own more Glocks than the cops do. If the cops can narrow it down to me and knock on my door, get a search warrant, find the gun, shoot it and check the ballistics, get a match, they have a good case. That's nice. But it doesn't always work out that way."
Ballistic "fingerprinting" is far more difficult. "What they're talking about with ballistic fingerprinting is taking one of these little brown envelopes to the local police department for every gun we sell, and we sell probably 400 to 500 guns a month. The police have no clue who it was sold to. If we include the information on the buyer when we give them the envelope, it would be no less daunting a task than if we told every mechanic that every time they sell tires, we want a sample tire tread, and we want to know whose vehicle you put it on, including VIN number, license number, and the registered owner's name and address. Is that going to be useful data? Probably not."
The morning Godwin and I spoke, John Allen Muhammad had just been arrested in Maryland. "Take the East Coast sniper," Godwin says. "How long would it take them to go through all their records of every 223 [rifle] case that they had to figure out which one this thing matched? How many resources are we going to spend before we figure out which gun this came out of? How many guns are there out there that wouldn't have it? Tons of them, and 99.99 percent haven't been used in any crimes or killed anybody."
Even if such a tedious system worked, beating it would be easy. "I can buy another barrel for cash without leaving a paper trail. Or I can come along with a little sandpaper or emery cloth and polish this out and alter it. I can take this extractor, which leaves a mark on the case, and replace it. In fact, these are parts that normally wear out in the normal course of a gun's life and will be replaced, sometimes several times. I can change the extractor with a file to make a different mark on it without replacing it. I can take the firing pin out and modify it or replace it. If I do these things, what do we have for a ballistic mark on this cartridge casing? It's a different gun.
"Ballistic fingerprinting would waste a tremendous amount of resources chasing every nine millimeter -- or, in the case of the sniper, every 223 rifle casing -- in the state. Take the sniper they just caught. If they fingerprinted every rifle on the eastern seaboard -- and let's say this guy didn't swap any parts of his gun out, and say he didn't bring his gun in from Washington state -- you're looking at a statistical universe that is absolutely oppressive. This isn't stored on a computer disk where you can get it up in a few minutes. This is going to tie up resources and people, and they will be looking for something that probably doesn't exist, because anybody with half a brain is going to change some of the parts."
When parts can't be changed, the markings can be. Godwin takes out another pistol, a Taurus, which is not as easy to disassemble. He explains how the manufacture of most weapons causes markings and imperfections to appear on the gun barrel. "When a bullet leaves, it almost has a fingerprint on it. You can compare bullets to barrels and say, 'This one came from this gun and that one came from that gun.' So we can identify which gun they go to. But because these barrels aren't exactly smooth, folks looking for better accuracy will do something called 'firelapping.' That's where you take a bullet and you dip it in this lapping compound, which acts like a rubbing compound. We'd take a couple of rounds, dip [them] in the compound, and shoot the bullets down the barrel. It rubs the barrel out, and you keep doing it with progressively finer grades of compound until it is nice and polished. Now, guess what we've done? We've changed the barrel, or the fingerprint. If that's not enough, I can always just shoot a whole bunch of these things until it almost turns smooth. I can prevent a forensic expert from identifying a gun barrel, that was used in a crime the day before, by going to the range without ever going to a gunsmith. By the time I'm done, you won't be able to pull the bullet from the crime scene and match it to this gun."
Ballistic fingerprinting is just one of many ideas being tested in California by anti-gun groups, since California is a popular place for testing anti-gun legislation. Laws that survive judicial review in California are more likely to survive passage in other states. "I was taught in school that you can't do that. I was taught that, according to the U.S. Constitution, states could give you more rights, but they couldn't take anything away from you. But that's not true. States can take away all sorts of stuff, and our attorney general and state legislature are demonstrating every session how much they can take away."
The suspension or modification of gun rights goes beyond a governor's signature. The state's department of justice often instructs how a new law will be implemented. "Next year, for us to continue selling handguns, we have to be [department of justice] certified instructors. They gave us one day that we are allowed to attend training -- [last Tuesday,] November 5. That's Election Day. On that day, we have to shut down the store and send everyone in this store to the training. One individual here is a poll worker and can't go to the training. The Department of Justice selected November 5, and I think it was selected on purpose. Or else it's quite a coincidence." This deadline was confirmed by another gun dealer, J.B. Gray, general manager of Discount Gun Mart, who further explained that the date was set for all San Diego gun dealers, with limited spaces for training. (At press time, it was learned that gun dealers had been given an extra day.)
Another thing that drives Godwin crazy is what he perceives as "misinformation" by the state. "When we were debating the assault-weapons ban, the attorney general went on radio here locally [on KOGO with Roger Hedgecock] and said that a flash suppresser made a shot invisible at night. Now, if you talk to any combat veteran, a flash suppresser does not suppress the muzzle flash. It's designed to keep the shooter from being blinded by his own flash." (Lockyer later retracted his statements to a KOGO staff member.)
Godwin just doesn't trust the government, and he makes no apologies for it. "The founding fathers said that you shouldn't trust our government. They said it was our job, the future citizens, to keep an eye on it and make sure that it didn't get out of hand. With ballistic fingerprinting, it's 'Don't confuse me with the facts, because I've made up my mind and I'll get my picture on TV for supporting this.' The legislature, which knows less about guns than frogs do, is writing laws about something they have no knowledge of."