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ALBANY, N.Y. -- New York's 7-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 database, saying 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 pistols and revolvers 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 two states that maintain statewide databases.
New guns are test fired, and the minute markings the guns 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 Rochester city 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 gun'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.
Spokesman Sgt. Kern Swoboda noted that the typical time between the legal purchase of a gun and the time it's used in crimes 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.
Police also have been trying for years to address limitations of the statewide database, but the only other state with a similar database is Maryland. State police there and Gov. Martin O'Malley's office did not return calls seeking comment on the status of their state's database.
The federal government keeps its own ballistics database called the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network. The national database is different from New York's database in that it collects information on guns used in crimes, as opposed to new guns. 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 proven difficult because that database may contain only ballistic information from crime guns. They are working on a one-way system that would keep New York's data out of the national database but allow New York to make inquiries into the federal database's information.
Drew Wade of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said one-way transfers could occur around November. State police Lt. Mark Heller of the agency's forensic lab said the link would help the New York database reach its "true potential."
The federal database has been credited with nearly 25,000 hits, many of them yielding investigative information. Still, questions have been raised about ballistics imaging.
A committee impaneled by the National Research Council reported in March that a national version of a new-gun database should not be created. While the researchers said imaging is helpful for generating leads, they said the current technology for comparing toolmarks is limited. They added that the fundamental assumption that every gun leaves a unique mark has not been scientifically demonstrated.
The matches in the New York database are a "first step" in investigations, Swoboda said.
Interestingly, the same researchers who were lukewarm to tool-mark forensics said they saw promise in "microstamping," a newer technique in which guns are specifically built to leave unique marks on ammunition.
California has already passed a law requiring semiautomatic handguns sold in the state starting in 2010 to "microstamp" each bullet cartridge in two locations whenever it is fired.
A similar bill was introduced in the New York Legislature but has not been approved.
On the Net:
Combined Ballistic Identification System
National Integrated Ballistic Information Network