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Better bullet fingerprinting

Maryland's 15-year-old ballistic fingerprinting law was a tantalizing idea that didn't work. It would doubtless be useful if police could pick up a shell casing at a crime scene and discover with a few clicks of a computer what gun it came from and who the gun's last known owner was. But the technology proved unreliable and the bureaucratic machinery needed to support it unwieldy. The General Assembly's decision to scrap it was probably several years overdue.

Still, Maryland lawmakers need not give up on the promise of being able to do with guns what DNA and fingerprint databases allow them to do with criminal suspects. Technology may offer a better way to identify the guns used in crimes much more effectively and cheaply, and California and Washington, D.C. are leading the way.

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When a gun is fired, it makes unique marks on the bullet and shell casing, and so Maryland's program and a similar one in New York rested on the idea that the police could effectively create a gun fingerprint database by collecting a shell casing fired from each gun sold in the state and scanning its markings into a computer. Theoretically, then, police could take shell casings from a crime scene and identify the gun that fired them, so long as it was initially sold in Maryland. But because the imaging technology wasn't sufficiently precise, that promise was never realized. The state's collection of shell casings was occasionally useful but only to confirm what authorities already knew, and it came at a substantial cost — some $5 million over 15 years.

With microstamping, on the other hand, information like a gun's manufacturer, model and serial number can be etched microscopically on the firing pin, which then stamps it onto each shell casing. Rather than relying on a database of images, authorities could simply search a database of serial numbers to match the casing to a gun.

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That's the promise, anyway. Whether it would work in practice remains to be seen. In 2007, California passed a law requiring new makes and models of handguns sold in there to come equipped with microstamp technology, but its effect was delayed until 2013, until the state certified that all gun manufacturers could access the technology unencumbered by patent protections. Some big manufacturers, including Smith & Wesson, have said they won't sell new guns in the state, and several gun rights activists and groups sued to overturn that and other restrictions on the sale of guns there. A federal judge ruled in the state's favor in February on constitutional grounds, though the plaintiffs have signaled plans to appeal. Meanwhile, a state law challenge arguing that the requirement is impossible to comply with is also working its way through the courts. In the meantime, gun manufacturers are selling older models that were grandfathered in to the microstamping requirement. A Washington D.C. law also mandates microstamping for new guns sold in the District, but it doesn't go into effect until next year.

Microstamping has been vigorously opposed by gun rights groups, which argue that it is expensive and ineffective. A study from the University of California Davis a decade ago found that the technology at the time had limitations — chiefly, that the legibility of the imprint made on shell casings could degrade over time and could potentially be erased or altered. But that study relied on after-market microstamping of firing pins, not guns manufactured with the technology, which the lead author says would make a material difference. Advocates say the technology has advanced in recent years, and that in any case, even imperfect imprinting of numbers can be useful, much in the same way that incomplete license plate numbers can help police.

Former Gov. Martin O'Malley has supported a national microstamping law as part of his presidential campaign, but there is good reason for Maryland lawmakers to consider a state-level requirement. One of the real limitations of microstamping (or, for that matter, ballistic fingerprinting) is that while it might identify the gun involved in a crime, it doesn't necessarily tell you who the shooter was. Guns often change hands multiple times between their initial sale and a crime scene. But Maryland has a network of other laws that would help solve that problem. Unlike the federal government, Maryland has long regulated private sales of firearms. New laws, pushed through by Mr. O'Malley in 2013, include licensing of handgun buyers, which has been shown in other states to discourage so-called straw purchases; requirements that owners report lost or stolen guns; and enhanced powers for state officials to audit gun dealers' inventory.

We should wait to see how the microstamping laws play out in California and Washington, but the idea has the potential, as former Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III told the New York Times three years ago, to take law enforcement "from the Stone Age to the jet age in an instant" — and to do it without the cumbersome bureaucracy of the ballistic fingerprinting program. That's a possibility worth exploring.

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