Theres an interesting discussion going on between Juan Volokh, Mark Kleiman, and Dave Kopel about ballistic fingerprinting, which I discussed back here. My proposal was to take ballistic data from guns, and store them in a series of private registries, who would hold the data and registration data in such a way that a) only a limited set of queries would be answered, and b) the registry as a whole would be volatile, and could be destroyed by the registrar in the event of an effort by the government to take it (which destruction would be explicitly permitted in the enabling legislation).
My suggestion was way too complex. (Although it raises other interesting possibilities)
Mark Kleiman proposes a simpler (although somewhat less effective) system, whereby spent brass (and possibly bullets) would be filed and imaged in a database and stored solely against the make, model, and serial number of the gun.
The manufacturers existing systems can track the gun to the wholesaler, whose records would reveal the retailer, whose records would then link to a purchaser, which would take a match at least as far as the original new purchaser of the gun.
I have one argument for, and two against, this proposal.
The argument for is:
1) It will help solve some certain number of crimes that would otherwise not be solved.
The arguments against are:
1) It will cost money which would be better spent on other crime-prevention or crime-solving resources;
2) It wont work very well because
a) the image matching technology isnt very good, the markings and characteristics of each gun change over time (or are easily changed), and so there will be an extremely low hit rate;
b) it will only be applied to new guns sold after the effective date (otherwise it begins to look like registration)which means it will apply to only a small fraction of the guns in circulation.
So on a cost-benefit basis, I wonder how effective it would really be. This ought to be (roughly) calculable, as an example: we assume that out of 500,000 crimes committed with guns, say 5,000 (made-up numbers alert!!) are committed with guns purchased in the last year. Of these, 1,500 are unsolved. Of these 50% involve spent brass or intact bullets, and we have a 20% chance of getting a match in the system, so we ought to be able to track 150 of these guns to their purchasers. Of these, 75% still own them, so we might get 120 hits on a system like this. One issue would be the number of hits we would get through simple good police work, so the additional hits would be, hypothetically, in the range of 60 80. Note that these numbers are entirely made up, and that Im simply trying to demonstrate the mechanism whereby we could cost a system like this.
Imagine that 1,000,000 guns are sold every year (thats less than I believe are actually sold, but sounds about right and Im not doing research tonight); it costs $10.00 to fingerprint, image, and store the spent brass and bullets (real cost is probably double); were talking about spending $10,000,000/year to help solve 70 crimes. Now that will go down every year (in ten years, well be spending $10,000,000 to solve 700 crimes). But on numbers like that, Id say the proposed plan is a bust. Given some time, Ill try and plug real numbers into this, and see how they come out (or you can do it and email the results to me!) but the question to the audience ought to be, how much do we spend on a program like this per possibly solved case?? $10,000?? $100,000??
There is a broader issue as well.
As I noted, On the other hand, there are a large group of people in this society who hate guns, and devoutly wish to make them go away
at least except for the ones they get to carry (see CA state Senator Beretta Perata) or their bodyguards carry (see Rosie). And these people are close to the levers of power, and it isnt hard to imagine that one day theyd get those levers, and use them to do whatever they could to take guns away from everyone who wasnt them. Theres a logical chain that goes from fingerprint new guns to fingerprint all guns on sale to fingerprint all guns and suddenly, like the mythical frog in a pot, were being boiled.
On one hand, Im convinced that the potential for this is very real.
On the other, I believe that the best way to resolve it is to politically defeat the hoplophobes (Col. Coopers the other Jeff Coopers term for those who are afraid of and wish to ban the private possession of weapons) completely and thoroughly.
And to do that, we (the gun-rights defending population) need to find a way to reach out to the big group in the middle. Some of them own guns; some of them are afraid of guns. One thing we need to do (and that I do all the time) is to stand ready to discuss the issue of violent crime using guns and what can be done to limit it. And having had those discussions, we need to stand ready to support measures that a) dont directly remove our rights or lead in that direction and b) have some hope of being effective (including being cost-effective).
I think that ballistic fingerprinting, as suggested by Kleiman, passes test a). Im not so sure about test b), but that ought to be something where some reasonable set of facts can be brought to light.
I have some homework to do, I guess. Anyone want to help?
[Addendum: Don’t forget to read Rob Lyman and Steven denBeste on these issues. I infer to a point they make … that freedom has a cost, and just because we’re seeing it doesn’t mean we should stop paying it … but I seldom make the argument as persuasively as they do.]