Editor’s note: This article was a submission by freelance writer Mike Doran)
The state of Maryland has finally ended its program to photograph and store the spent bullet casings of thousands of guns, the Baltimore Sun reports.
For 15 years, the state has required gun manufacturers to fire weapons to be sold in Maryland and send the casings to the police to be cataloged, with the intent being to make a database of “ballistic fingerprints” that could be used to solve future crimes.
The General Assembly was finally able to repeal the law on October 1, 2015, after three previous attempts failed.
“It’s probably the best bill I’ve had,” said Sen. Ed Reilly, a Republican from Anne Arundel County, who sponsored the bill to repeal the system.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” said former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat who championed the database. “It’s a little unfortunate, in that logic and common sense suggest that it would be a good crime-fighting tool.”
One big problem: the database never helped to solve a single crime. And with a final price tag of close to $5 million, the entire endeavor just seemed like a massive waste of time, money and resources.
The database consisted of 300,000 stored casings from each new handgun sold in Maryland since 2000, all of which were placed in an old fallout shelter behind the State Police headquarters in Pikesville. Each one was stamped with a barcode, photographed, and filed away in boxes, filling three large rooms.
The theory was that when they needed to find a handgun, the police could match a casing from the crime scene with one in the database.
A computer system was created to sort and match the images, but it never worked properly, sometimes returning hundreds of matches in a search. After seven years, it was abandoned and the state stopped photographing the casings.
The Maryland system was based on the federal National Integrated Ballistic Information Network started in the 1990s. However, that system only catalogs the casings from crime scenes and from guns confiscated by police.
It’s been clear for a while that the system like Maryland’s doesn’t work. New York created a similar program but ended it in 2012 when it also failed. And in 2008 the National Research Council studied the idea of a national ballistics database with casings from every gun. After reviewing the Maryland and New York programs, it was concluded that a national system would be impractical and a waste of money.
Proponents of the database argue that it still has potential. Zach Suber, a supervisor and forensic scientist for the Maryland State Police, says the process “could have been tweaked” to make it more effective.
According to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, most guns used in crimes were purchased 15 years prior, meaning the first guns in the database are reaching the time period when they would most likely be useful to the police.
And while there were 26 cases where the database helped police, investigators already knew the gun they were searching for. In one instance, a suspect was already arrested and charged by the time the database was utilized, according to police records.
What will happen to the database is unclear. The new legislation suggests selling the hundreds of casings for scrap.