Bush Adm. to Ponder National Ballistics Fingerprint Database

W By Ken Fireman

wASHINGTON – The Bush administration spent much of the day Tuesday questioning the wisdom of creating a national ballistics fingerprint database, but then partially reversed course and agreed to study the idea.

A group of White House domestic policy officials met late in the day with staffers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and asked them to look into the technical feasibility of creating a nationwide database, said a White House spokesman, Scott Stanzel.

He said the ATF officials were also asked to look at the experiences of New York and Maryland, the only two states that currently require all firearms to be test-fired before sale to create a distinctive ballistic “fingerprint” that is kept on file for use by criminal investigators.

The partial turnaround came after White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had repeatedly questioned the efficacy of such a system, saying there were concerns about both its reliability and its impact on the privacy rights of gun owners. The fingerprint is created by markings unique to the weapon that are imprinted on a bullet.

Fleischer’s comments had prompted supporters of the database such as Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to charge that the administration was allowing the National Rifle Association to set its gun policies – a charge Fleischer denied.

Stanzel said the decision to meet with ATF representatives did not constitute a major shift by the administration. He said Fleischer’s comments earlier in the day had reflected unanswered questions about the proposed database, which the ATF officials were later asked to explore.

Proponents say crimes such as the sniper shootings would be easier to solve if such a database existed. Advocates say testing must be done nationwide to be effective.

But Fleischer said questions have been raised about the accuracy of the data. He said repeated firings of a weapon can alter the bullet tracings used to produce the fingerprint and that criminals could easily alter the gun barrel. “A nail file cannot alter the fingerprint of a human,” he said. “A nail file can alter the fingerprinting of a weapon.”

The proposal also raises privacy concerns, Fleischer said. “There is an issue about fingerprints, of course, as a very effective way to catch people who engage in robbery or theft,” he said. “Is that to say that every citizen in the United States should be fingerprinted in order to catch robbers and thieves? And these same issues are raised here. The president does believe in the right of law-abiding citizens to own weapons.”

Despite Fleischer’s comments, a recent ATF study dismissed questions about the accuracy of ballistic fingerprinting as unfounded. The study was a response to criticisms of an existing federal database limited to weapons used in crimes.

The study said markings placed on bullets “have been shown to be consistent through hundreds or thousands of firings” and that attempts to alter the imprint were exceptionally rare.

“One of the senior ATF firearms examiners collaborating on this report has seen only two cases of altered firearms over the course of a 15-year career, and in one of those cases, the diversion was unsuccessful, as the evidence could still be matched to the firearm despite the alteration,” the study said.

Schumer acknowledged that without White House support, his legislation has little chance of becoming law. He called Fleischer’s objections “bogus” and said the administration’s opposition stemmed from its political ties to the NRA and other anti-gun-control groups, which strongly oppose creation of a national database.

“It’s hard to believe the White House is letting a small band of ideologues dictate their position on something so basic to safety,” Schumer said. “Every law enforcement professional says this would be helpful. And law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear.”

Fleischer vigorously denied that the NRA had dictated the administration’s position.