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Report Faults Md. Ballistics Database

Investigators Not Aided, State Police Conclude

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; Page B01

A Maryland law requiring state police to collect ballistics data on every handgun sold in the state is ineffective and expensive and should be repealed, according to a report by the Maryland State Police.

Police have gathered information from more than 43,000 guns since the law was adopted in 2000, but the data have not significantly aided a single criminal investigation, according to the report. The study was compiled last year by the state police forensic sciences division and distributed to state legislators late last week.

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"It's not yielding any results," said Sgt. Rob Moroney, a state police spokesman. "The program simply has not met expectations and does not aid in the mission statement of the department of police."

Maryland and New York are the only states with laws establishing a database on ballistics "fingerprints" -- the unique markings left on shell casings when a gun is fired. Those markings can then be traced to a single gun. The Maryland program has cost $2.6 million, according to the report.

Gun-control advocates and some law enforcement officials have hailed the legislation as an effective tool because it can help police trace evidence from a crime scene to specific weapons.

The recent report represents a significant departure from a 2003 state police report, which called the ballistics database "a powerful weapon in law enforcement's arsenal against crime." That report acknowledged that the system has flaws but said it should continue.

"No investigative tool is absolutely perfect or will function as anticipated during every use," the 2003 report said.

Moroney said the change resulted from the realization that the program has not aided law enforcement. "There was no influence from anybody in the administration" of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), Moroney said.

In 2003, Ehrlich opposed a proposed expansion of the state's ballistic fingerprinting program to include rifles and other long guns, citing concerns about the cost and effectiveness of the gun-tracking program.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell declined to comment yesterday on the report or whether Ehrlich will push for a repeal.

"We have just received the report, so it is still under review at this time," Fawell said.

Leah Barrett, executive director of CeaseFire Maryland, a gun-control group, said it would be a "tragedy for the whole field of ballistics imaging" if Maryland's ballistics program were scrapped.

She said that the program has technical flaws -- including the inability of local law enforcement agencies to directly access the state database -- but that with time and improved technology, it can yield important results for law enforcement.

"You just need a bit of imagination, a bit of skill and a bit of competence in your state police, as well as a bit of political courage, and frankly we're lacking that here in Maryland," she said.

Some gun rights groups opposed the ballistics-fingerprinting program, saying it is a form of gun registration that affects law-abiding gun owners. Other groups have opposed the Maryland and New York laws on the grounds that they are ineffective.

"It is costly. It is time-consuming," said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "We think there are important public policy questions of whether these are important law enforcement tools or whether tax dollars could be spent more effectively elsewhere."

Under the program, every handgun sold in Maryland must have its ballistic markings filed in the state database. The guns are supposed to be test-fired by the manufacturer, and a shell casing from that test firing sent to state police.

The recent report says the system has produced just six "hits" -- instances where crime-scene evidence matched ballistics data in the system. None of those has been used in a criminal trial, the report says.

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