Maryland: The Happy Death Of A Bad Idea


As one might expect, a liberal newspaper is decrying the demise of yet another wasteful, big-government boondoggle. In this case, the death of Maryland’s “ballistic fingerprint” registry.   The Baltimore Sun reports: 

“Millions of dollars later, Maryland has officially decided that its 15-year effort to store and catalog the ‘fingerprints’ of thousands of handguns was a failure.

Since 2000, the state required that gun manufacturers fire every handgun to be sold here and send the spent bullet casing to authorities. The idea was to build a database of ‘ballistic fingerprints’ to help solve future crimes.

But the system — plagued by technological problems — never solved a single case. Now the hundreds of thousands of accumulated casings could be sold for scrap.

‘Obviously, I’m disappointed,’ said former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat whose administration pushed for the database to fulfill a campaign promise. ‘It’s a little unfortunate, in that logic and common sense suggest that it would be a good crime-fighting tool.”

It is unsurprising that Glendening wouldn’t have a clue that logic and common sense—to say nothing of actual knowledge of police work and firearm technology—suggest that the registry couldn’t possibly be “a good crime-fighting tool.”

“In a old fallout shelter beneath Maryland State Police headquarters in Pikesville, the state has amassed more than 300,000 bullet casings, one from each new handgun sold here since the law took effect. They fill three cavernous rooms secured by a common combination lock.

Each casing was meticulously stamped with a bar code, sealed in its own envelope and filed in boxes stacked from floor to ceiling. Forensic scientists photographed the casings in hopes the system would someday identify the owner of a gun fired at a crime scene. The system cost an estimated $5 million to set up and operate over the years.

But the computerized system designed to sort and match the images never worked as envisioned. In 2007, the state stopped bothering to take the photographs, though hundreds of thousands more casings kept piling up in the fallout shelter.

The ballistic fingerprinting law was repealed effective Oct. 1, ending the requirement that spent casings be sent in. The General Assembly, in repealing the law, authorized the state police to sell off its inventory for scrap.

The science behind the system is valid. The scratches etched onto a casing can be matched to the gun that fired it, mapping a so-called fingerprint to the gun. The Maryland system was an expanded version of the successful but more limited federal National Integrated Ballistic Information Network started in the 1990s. It catalogs casings only from crime scenes and from guns confiscated by police. Maryland’s unwieldy version collected the fingerprint from every single handgun sold in the state.

Worse, the system Maryland bought created images so imprecise that when an investigator submitted a crime scene casing, the database software would sometimes spit out hundreds of matches. The state sued the manufacturer in 2009 for $1.9 million, settling three years later for $390,000.

Zach Suber, a supervisor and forensic scientist for the Maryland State Police, says the process “could have been tweaked” to make it more effective. It’s still possible, Suber says, that the collection of casings could have greater forensic value in the future.”

Spoken like a true believer. Here’s why the project was futility on wheels from the first day:

Each fired casing collected came from a brand new gun. Human fingerprints are relatively changeless; not so for firearms. Normal wear from shooting would inevitably alter the surfaces leaving markings on the brass to such a degree that the original piece of brass would be useless for comparison.

Greater wear would inevitably cause an enormous number of false positives, wiping away any possibility of instant, accurate computer matches, and requiring very costly and manpower/time intensive searches by hand.

Law abiding people obey the law. Collecting brass from them is always an exercise in feel good statement making, rather than law enforcement.

Making a positive, unassailable match does not solve a crime. At best, it only tells the police that a bullet was fired from a specific gun, and who the original owner of that gun was. It does not tell them who fired it or anything else related to a specific crime. The police still have to be able to place a specific person at the crime scene at a specific time and prove that their firing of the weapon was unlawful. Most of the time, investigation would reveal the gun was stolen, and even if the police could possibly figure out who stole it and when, they’re still stuck with the original dilemma of proving who fired it. The real world is not like the TV world of CSI. Crimes are virtually never solved within 44 minutes by high tech means.

In addition, the entire enterprise requires that criminals leave brass behind. With revolvers, this is by no means a certainty. Even with semiautos, it takes no time for a careful criminal to pick up empty brass and carry it away. In addition, they could simply visit a range, pick up a handful of fired brass, and scatter it at crime scenes.

Even The Sun took note of some of these issues:

“That’s because, on average, most guns used in crimes were bought nearly 15 years prior, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. By the time they end up on the street, they’ve often been stolen and resold illegally. [skip]

New York followed Maryland’s lead and created a similar database, but that state pulled funding for the project in 2012 when it, too, had no success.

By then, it had been clear for years that the efforts weren’t working. In 2008, the Department of Justice asked the National Research Council to study the value in creating a national ballistics database with fingerprints from every gun. Researchers, after reviewing the Maryland and New York programs, concluded that such an endeavor would be impractical and a waste of money.”

But surely the program was of some value? Not so much:

“There have been 26 instances in the past 15 years in which Maryland’s cache of spent casings helped investigators in some fashion, but in each case investigators already knew the gun for which they were looking, state police said.”

And again, knowing about the gun doesn’t place it in a specific person’s hand. The utter uselessness and waste of the system was evident even in Maryland, not that it was immediately possible to do anything about it:

“By 2004, when Maryland officials calculated an ineffective system had already cost the state $2.4 million, some legislators tried unsuccessfully to repeal the ballistic fingerprinting law. Repeal efforts in 2005 and 2014 also failed.

‘It’s probably the best bill I’ve had,’ said Sen. Ed Reilly, a Republican from Anne Arundel County, who sponsored the bill that passed this year. He said prior efforts failed because a key committee chairman would not bring it to a vote.

That chairman, former state Sen. Brian Frosh, a Democrat, is now Maryland’s attorney general. His successor as chairman, Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat, let the bill come up for a vote.

Frosh said he was open to repealing the law several times during his tenure, most recently in 2013, but he said police argued that the system still had potential.

‘It’s fair to look at it after 15 years and see how effective it was,’

Frosh said. ‘I don’t have a problem abandoning it.’

In the fall of 2014, state police issued a report that showed the program had solved no crimes and was costing more than ever. A sweeping gun-control law passed in 2013 — and the surge in gun sales that resulted — created a backlog and state police had to hire eight people just to organize the nearly 60,000 bullet casings sent in that year. In the report, police again suggested the program had merit.

But by the time repealing it came up for a hearing again, Zirkin said, no one defended the program.

‘If there was any evidence whatsoever — any evidence — that this was helpful in solving crimes, we wouldn’t have touched it,’ Zirkin said. ‘The police came in and said it was useless. No one contradicted that.’

The state spent several hundred thousand dollars a year managing the bullet casings, officials say, which would put the lifetime cost of the project at roughly $5 million.”

Not only was the program useless, it was simultaneously damaging to the economy:

“For more than a decade, meanwhile, the state police have fielded complaints that manufacturers were needlessly firing off rounds from brand-new guns.

‘It drove the gun collectors nuts,’ Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said. ‘It’s like a car. As soon as you drive it off the lot, it loses value.”

The issues here are no different than those surrounding microstamping. Crimes are solved almost entirely the old-fashioned way: by police officers talking to people. If even a gun-hostile state like Maryland can recognize the futility of such programs and abolish them, one would think such costly, useless ideas would never again be proposed. Unfortunately, the compulsion of some to blame inanimate objects for crime, rather than the criminals that commit them, is powerful. By that kind of demented logic, if guns cause crime, guns can solve crimes. The so-called “assault weapon” ban was an utter failure, but Hillary Clinton, and others, never tire of wanting to resurrect it.

Some bad ideas—and faulty logic–never die, though at least one did– for at least awhile–in Maryland, of all places.