L. Neil Smith's
Number 195, October 21, 2002


Fingerprinting Firearms?

by Jim Duensing

Special to TLE

In politics, it's called a trial balloon.

George W. announced through his spokesman that the ATF, at the President's request, is looking into the possibility of "fingerprinting" every firearm. Firearms leave distinctive marks on the bullet and on the casing of every cartridge fired. For instance, if you look at a fired brass casing, you can tell if it was fired from a Glock or from a Heckler and Koch. However, these marks are very easily altered.

The distinctive marks left on a bullet - the actual projectile - are due to the rifling marks the barrel imprints on the lead bullet. This rifling can be altered in less than a minute with a brush available at any hardware store. Thus, the marks left on a bullet are alterable in less than a minute. Further, bullets are often deformed when they strike victims or buildings to the point where no information is gained. At any rate, frangible ammunition leaves no marks because it disintegrates on impact. So, no registration of barrel markings could be effective in tracing guns to crimes.

The chamber of a firearm (where the casing sits) and the firing pin (the piece of the gun which actually strikes the cartridge's primer) leave distinctive marks on the casings. These markings are of no use to investigators when a revolver or a bolt-action rifle is used in a crime, because the casings are not necessarily expelled from the weapon upon its firing. With a semi-automatic rifle, those casings are expelled from the weapon and, unless picked up by the assailant, can be used by detectives to determine the assailant's firing position and provide a "ballistic match" if the assailant is ever caught. However, this match is not akin to DNA or even fingerprinting, but rather to blood type. And again, these markings are easily alterable.

"Fingerprinting" - the term used by the ATF and thus the media - is for the above reasons a misnomer; but, so are assault-rifle, cop- killer bullets, and Saturday Night Special. Fingerprinting a firearm implies that it carries with it a permanent characteristic that is discoverable by an expert with the proper training and equipment. Such is not and never can be the case with ballistics. But, a "fingerprinting" system for firearms can be effective at one thing - registration.

It is useless to acquire a gun's markings if that gun is not attributable to a specific easily locatable person. People have been registered for a while. Your driver's license and social security number can be cross referenced in any number of computer systems to tell authorities exactly where you live, what vehicle(s) you drive, how many bank accounts you have, where you last used your credit card, etc. Once guns are registered to easily locatable persons, it becomes very easy to confiscate those weapons - or at least much easier.

Indeed, there can be no other purpose for a registration system other than confiscation. Sure, such a system may have meager benefits to police who find a gun at a crime scene and can then link it to the individual it was stolen from. But, since no one with a concealed weapons permit has ever committed a violent crime with that weapon, it seems rather unlikely that the system would do more than create a database of peaceable individuals concerned enough about their own safety to arm themselves.

Every firearm confiscation effort has begun with a firearm registration. Because of this historical fact, registration has long been the proverbial line in the sand beyond which freedom loving individuals would not allow governmental agents to cross. George W. has already shown his ability to do that which Bill Clinton, or any Democrat, could not have done to American liberties. Conservatives would have never allowed Bill Clinton's ATF and FBI the ability to legally execute secret search warrants, but George W. has an R next to his name. Don't forget, it was George W. who removed firearms from the hands of trained and potentially heroic pilots just before they could have been used to prevent 9/11. In this New Era of reduced concern for individuals in favor of the state, it would not be surprising for support of this reasonable restriction on an unalienable right to extend into the bowels of the Republican Party. George W. could cross this line. He could do what the British could not, back at Concord and Lexington.

And so, this most recent trial balloon George W. sent up is intended to discover if Conservative America will present as placid a defense of their firearms rights as they did their privacy rights. It will determine if Liberal America will fight for the right of firearms owner's privacy; or whether they are only concerned with that privacy which is required to ingest certain foreign substances. Like all good trial balloons, it demonstrates the position the politician would like to take if public opinion will allow it. Like all good trial balloons, it allows the politician to easily backpedal from the idea if public opinion is overwhelmingly against him. Like all good trial balloons, it gives the politician's mild opposition the necessary time to accept the idea. Like all good trial balloons, it gives principled defenders of liberty a warning shot. It tells them to lock and load and to keep their powder dry.

Which group are you in? If you don't know, you should examine your response to this trial balloon.

I cannot tell a lie, I misquoted George Washington. In my October 4th, 2002 article "Lady Liberty Dropped Her Torch" and TLE Issue 193, I wrongly attributed a quote to him, the origin of which is unknown.

Thanks to Stephen, a concerned reader who pointed out my folly.

To read more about the quote in question.


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