New York Defends Handgun Database

A New York State Police technician in Albany demonstrates how a shell casing is placed under a microscope to identify a firearm's telltale markings.
A New York State Police technician in Albany demonstrates how a shell casing is placed under a microscope to identify a firearm's telltale markings. (By Mike Groll -- Associated Press)
By Michael Hill
Associated Press
Monday, September 29, 2008

ALBANY, N.Y. -- New York's seven-year-old database of handgun "fingerprints" has yet to lead to a criminal prosecution, and questions linger about its effectiveness. Still, state police remain committed to the tool, saying that more time and a long-awaited link to a federal ballistics database could bring success.

Since March 2001, identifying information about more than 200,000 new revolvers and semiautomatic pistols sold in New York have been entered into the Combined Ballistic Identification System database maintained by state police. New York and Maryland are the only states that maintain statewide databases.

New guns are test-fired, and the minute markings the weapons make on the shell casings are recorded and entered into the digital database.

Proponents say the markings are as unique as fingerprints and can be compared against shell casings found at crime scenes. The results as of August: 209,239 casings entered into New York's database, 7,124 inquiries and two hits.

Both hits were several years ago and involve separate crimes in Rochester -- a drive-by shooting that resulted in an injury and an incident involving shots fired -- and neither resulted in a prosecution, according to state and local police.

Gun advocates, who have opposed the database from the get-go as unworkable, claim the lack of results is evidence of the system's failure. They contend that a firearm's "fingerprints" can be changed easily by taking a file to the breech face. Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, said the state would be better served by spending the money for the database -- which police say costs about $1 million a year -- on more police.

"We don't have to be throwing millions of dollars into a program that doesn't work," he said.

State police disagree. A spokesman, Sgt. Kern Swoboda, noted that the typical time between the legal purchase of a gun and the time it is used in a crime is seven to 10 years. That would mean that the first guns logged in 2001 are just now becoming more likely to be used in crimes, and that matches could start coming in the next several years.

The federal government keeps its own ballistics database, the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network. The national database is different from New York's in that it collects information on guns used in crimes, as opposed to new firearms. But it is technically possible to compare entries in the two databases.

For years, New York officials have been trying to secure an agreement with federal officials to link to the national database, but it has proved difficult because that database may contain only ballistic information from crime guns.

The federal database has been credited with nearly 25,000 hits, many of them yielding investigative information.

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