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alan
June 18, 2004, 08:52 PM
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Just how reliable is fingerprinting...in any form?
By Dave Workman


Remember the name Brandon Mayfield. He's the Portland, Oregon attorney who was wrongly jailed earlier this spring because of a faulty FBI analysis of fingerprints found at the scene of a terrorist bombing in Madrid, Spain.


That he was freed after spending weeks in jail - maintaining his innocence all along, while it seemed like the FBI and Justice Department had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the point of admitting a mistake had been made – clearly demonstrated why so many in the firearms community are skeptical of the way some people want to use "fingerprints" to identify crime guns.


I'm not talking about latent fingerprints, the kind that the FBI misread even after Spanish authorities rejected them as belonging to Mayfield. This isn't even about bogus DNA evidence that has come back to haunt the FBI and Texas Department of Public Safety over the past couple of years. DNA testing is supposed to be even more reliable than fingerprinting, but shoddy testing in cases involving federal or state crime labs has raised doubts about hundreds of cases.


This is about so-called "ballistic fingerprints" which were heralded in the wake of the Beltway Sniper killings as the newest panacea for gun crime. The correct technical term is "ballistic imaging," but even experts with California"s Department of Justice and Belgium's National Institute for Forensic Science maintain that current technology is, at best, unreliable.


Mayfield, a Muslim convert, was jailed on the basis of an FBI analysis of a fingerprint, a technology that has been around - and relied upon in courts of law - for generations.


Ballistic "fingerprinting" is a relatively new technology that needs a lot of work. Yet the usual choir of do-gooders in the gun control movement quickly embraced this questionable science and made it a buzz term for days on the networks. At least two states now require it for all handguns sold in their jurisdictions, even though the technology has not helped solve a single crime in either state.


The problem is that, unlike fingerprints and DNA, which do not change, a firearm's ballistic 'fingerprint" will definitely change over the service life of the gun. You don't even have to change a firing pin, scratch a barrel, or add a file stroke to a bolt or breech face to alter the ballistic image. A test of 790 handguns in which more than 2,000 rounds were fired resulted in a 38 percent failure rate even when ammunition of the same type and brand was compared. The failure rate climbed to 62 percent when ammunition was switched.


Currently, the FBI is combing the nation for a specific pistol, with a particular type of barrel, in its effort to solve the October 2001 murder of assistant federal prosecutor Thomas Wales in Seattle. Wales was the outspoken, sometimes shrill, president of Washington CeaseFire, an anti-gun lobbying organization. The killer used a gun chambered for a European cartridge, but used the wrong ammunition. Ballistics experts told me – while I was researching the story about this search that was first reported in Gun Week last year – that it would be virtually impossible to get a ballistics match on the murder weapon, if it even still exists.


After the Mayfield blunder, is it any wonder why owners of handguns similar to the one used in the Wales killing might be concerned about providing their pistols for ballistics testing to the FBI? If crime lab technicians can't be relied upon to accurately read a latent print without cutting corners, and jailing an innocent man as a result, how can they be trusted to not take shortcuts on so-called "ballistic fingerprint" tests, and possibly lock up an innocent gun owner?


Wary shooters have every right to be suspicious, if not justifiably paranoid, about surrendering their firearms for ballistic imaging, the results of which would be entered into a database. This is especially true for people who own the same kind of gun, with the same kind of barrel, used in the Wales slaying.


Was Brandon Mayfield's case an anomaly? It certainly is a signal flare. If an agency of the FBI's caliber can get it wrong with a genuine fingerprint, how can anyone be expected to get it right with something as questionable as a "ballistic fingerprint?"


Dave Workman is senior editor at Gun Week, a publication owned by the Second Amendment Foundation, and communications director for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.

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Art Eatman
June 18, 2004, 09:19 PM
While I don't all the details of the Brandon Mayfield case, I'm not unaware of the issue of fingerprints therein. What I don't know enough about as to details is whether full fingerprints were found, or partials. I don't remember all the grimy details, but a lengthy courtroom explanation of the identification system spoke to "number of points of similarity" for the ID of somebody from the discovery of partial prints.

However, when the idea of "fingerprinting" firearms and cartridge cases and bullets was first spoken of, it struck me as a bad idea--and the various points raised against it have been known for a long, long time.

Any publicity which helps to show it's a bad idea is just fine with me...

:), Art

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