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Not a Magic Bullet, But ...

For a long time, the National Rifle Association's fingerprints have been on efforts to bar the more effective use of technology to curb crime. But that shouldn't stop lawmakers who dare stand up to the NRA from passing sensible measures that would use ballistics "fingerprinting" of guns.

Such fingerprinting, used most recently in the Washington, D.C., area sniper case, is a technology that can identify the unique marks left by a gun's firing pin on each bullet and its shell casing, as well as on the inside of a gun's barrel.

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In the sniper case, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) used the method to link the same gun to most of the sniper crimes in three different states and the District of Columbia. Yet if the gun's manufacturer had been able to provide the police a ballistics fingerprint of that weapon, investigators could have more quickly traced it to the gun store in Washington State where it was purchased, and possibly prevented further tragedy.

But the government's database of ballistic fingerprints consists only of those taken from guns recovered at crime scenes. And the sniper case shows why it's time that all new guns have their fingerprints recorded in case they are ever used in a crime.

Still, the NRA stubbornly continues to try to thwart efforts to register such prints, worried the effort will open a door to broader gun registration in the US.

It should take note of the fact that, along with the ATF's successes (12,000 successful matches to date) in ballistics testing, two other national registries also aided in apprehending the snipers - a license plate number, and a fingerprint match on a gun in Alabama.

The NRA correctly argues that a gun barrel itself can be changed, thus changing the markings inside; also, that altering a gun's firing pin could help disguise the gun's "fingerprint" and perhaps allow criminals to avoid detection. But it should also recognize that not all criminals, in fact, maybe most, are so savvy as to go through such steps required to elude detection.

The NRA also argues that a national database would be expensive. Yet pending legislation carries a price-tag no more than the cost of the ATF's existing database, $20 million, a small price to pay to prevent or solve more gun crimes.

From the shooting of President Reagan to the tragedy at Columbine High School, the nation has learned it must take more steps to make the country safer from gun-wielding criminals.

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Ballistics fingerprinting has proven itself a valuable crime-solving tool. It's time to take the next step.


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