For gun control advocates, it sure sounded like a great idea. Why not force gun purchasers to fire a round at the police station so that the ballistic “fingerprint” of the firearm could be catalogued? That way, police could find the perpetrator every time a gun was used in a crime. What could go wrong?
Plenty, according to the Baltimore Sun’s Erin Cox. Fifteen years, millions of dollars, and 340,000 shell casings later, Maryland decided last week to scrap the system … after failing to solve one single crime in its existence (via PJ Media):
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 amount of money wasted for Maryland taxpayers? Five million dollars, which isn’t the worst boondoggle in recent memory, but it’s bad enough. It would have been worse if the state had actually continued to operate the system for the entire fifteen years, but it gave up over eight years ago without bothering to end the program. Instead, the state legislature finally pulled the plug:
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.
And even when the state did operate the system, they didn’t operate it competently:
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.
Republicans in Maryland tried ending the program twice, in 2005 and again in 2013. Democrats blocked those efforts both times despite the failures in both Maryland’s system and a similar one in New York, which shut down in 2012. When Martin O’Malley got a gun-control law passed in 2014, it created a surge in sales that ended up burying the state police in spent shell casings, requiring eight staffers to be hired to deal with the 60,000 fresh samples. Just warehousing and maintaining the shell casings cost “several hundred thousand dollars a year,” according to the Baltimore Sun.
What lessons are we to learn here? Perhaps the first lesson is that no idea is so nonsensical that it can’t be turned into a government program, especially when the topic is gun control. Even now, some of the program’s defenders insist that it takes 15 years for this kind of project to ripen because guns tend to get stolen and used in crimes long after their initial sale. However, even if that’s true, then the ballistic fingerprints will get investigators nowhere except to find the victim of a prior robbery. It still won’t solve the extant crime. Meanwhile, Maryland will bury itself in used shell casings and pay for storage and personnel in order to solve no crimes at all. Those resources would be put to much better use if they funded more investigators rather than more bureaucrats and stock clerks. Those are the priorities that matter in law enforcement, but appear to matter less to politicians looking for headlines to assuage gun-control advocates.
Addendum: It’s worth noting, as Glenn Reynolds does, that the impact of gun-control laws often have more adverse impacts than just excessive spending:
Cottrol noted that crimes like carrying or owning a pistol without a license are what the law has traditionally termed malum prohibitum — that is, things that are wrong only because they are prohibited. (The contrast is with the other traditional category, malum in se, those things, like rape, robbery, and murder, that are wrong in themselves.)
Traditionally, penalties for malum prohibitum acts were generally light, since the conduct that the laws governed wasn’t wrong in itself. But modern American law often treats even obscure and technical violations of gun laws as felonies and — Cottrol noted — prosecutors often go out of their way to prosecute these crimes more vigorously even than traditional crimes like rape or murder.
Cottrol discussed a number of such cases, including that of Melroy Cort, a double-amputee Iraq veteran who in 2006 was traveling to Walter Reed Army Hospital for treatment from Ohio. He was charged with possession of a pistol not registered in the District of Columbia (though he said he had a permit in Ohio), a felony that would not only have sent him to prison, but would have cost him his veterans’ benefits. Although, as Cottrol notes, prosecutors in the DC Attorney General’s office had discretion to drop the charges; they instead threw the book at him. …
Want to reduce crime? Punish criminals. Don’t lock up peaceable citizens on a technicality.
And stop putting foolish roadblocks up for legitimate gun ownership as well.