Billionaire donors Laura and John Arnold support far more in Maryland than police surveillance
Maryland

Maryland scraps gun "fingerprint" database after 15 failed years

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Maryland spent millions on a gun database that solved no crimes.

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."

The database "was a waste," said Frank Sloane, owner of Pasadena Gun & Pawn in Anne Arundel County. "There's things that they could have done that would have made sense. This didn't make any sense."

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The ballistic fingerprinting law was repealed effective Oct. 1, ending the requirement that spent casings be sent in.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.

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.

So the oldest ballistic fingerprints in Maryland's collection are just now reaching the age where the guns they identify may be falling into a criminal's hands, Suber said. He said the state police have no immediate plans to turn the collection into scrap metal, as the legislature suggested.

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.

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.

The first case came in 2004, when Prince George's County investigators thought the gun used in a homicide outside a Popeye's restaurant in Oxon Hill was bought by the suspect's girlfriend a month earlier.

Investigators pulled the casing from the gun the girlfriend purchased and matched it to the crime scene. But the case against Robert Garner relied more on eyewitness statements and other circumstantial evidence that put him at the scene of the shooting. Garner, who was ultimately convicted, had already been arrested and charged by the time investigators tapped into the ballistic fingerprinting database, according to state police records.

Just last week, Suber said, investigators on three different cases asked for help from the stash of spent casings. Montgomery County detectives thought a particular stolen gun might have been used in a homicide, even though they hadn't found the gun yet. In Baltimore, detectives looking into two separate murders asked for similar help.

The results aren't in, but in all three cases, investigators already suspected that a certain gun was used. Lawmakers had hoped the database would work the other way, pointing the way to a gun used in a crime.

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.

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."

ecox@baltsun.com

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