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In the Crossfire

Sniper case spurs new gun control debate

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Gun control advocates are saying technology exists to create a national ballistic fingerprint system that would aid authorities in the search for suspects such as the sniper responsible for six killings in the Washington area.

Such a tracking system would match bullets to individual guns and guns to their owners. But critics say that it would amount to a national gun registry.

Dennis Henigan, legal director for the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence, and Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, stepped into the "Crossfire" to debate the issue with hosts Paul Begala and Robert Novak.

BEGALA: This is always a contentious topic: gun control and gun rights, but particularly now when there is a sniper on the loose.

Bob [has] mentioned ... a system that's being tried out in Maryland that would take a ballistic fingerprint from every barrel of every new gun produced. Manufacturers would keep that fingerprint on file, and then if we had a federal system, as many law enforcement folks have proposed, they would be able to track down that gun and maybe even find the killer.

Here is what a law enforcement official told The New York Times on Tuesday. Joe Vince is the former chief of the crime guns analysis section of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

He said: "I definitely think that the technology is there. And it has been refined to the point where it's cost effective. It would not be an imposition on the manufacturers or law enforcement or citizens, so I'm all for it."

Mr. Pratt, why are you against it?

PRATT: Well, for one thing, he is wrong. The technology isn't so hot. They have had it for handguns in Maryland for casings, not the bullet itself, and they've run 17,000 runs on the system, and they've not solved one crime with it.

And there are a number of reasons why I think that would be. In addition to not all the guns are in the database, they never will be because it's possible to buy guns with illegal false identification. The government accounting office actually did that about a year ago, and everywhere they went they made sure they had a false identification of a noncriminal, somebody who wasn't in the database. And, of course, they were sold a gun.

You can also change the barrel and firing pin, so that you change all the signatures. And actually just using the gun not even all that much will also change the characteristics of that fingerprint. So it all adds up to only one thing getting accomplished, a registration system of gun owners that's even more extensive than what we already suffer from.

NOVAK: Mr. Henigan, let me make a little scenario. We don't know who this murderous sniper is. But I'm going to make a little bet that he stole the weapon some place. Now, if he stole the weapon, and they had this system nationwide, that in itself would kill the system, wouldn't it?

HENIGAN: Well, first of all, Bob, you have no idea whether he stole the weapon.

NOVAK: Well, let's just assume he did.

HENIGAN: But in fact, most of the guns used in crimes are not stolen at all. They're bought from gun dealers. They're bought by traffickers who sell them into the illegal market. The fact that such a system would not solve every crime does not mean it's not a very valuable system.

It makes absolutely no sense when we have the technology today, to not only be able to tell that the same gun was used in multiple shootings, [but] we could [also] tell which gun it was. And we could do that before we even confiscate the gun.

NOVAK: Then explain this to me, Mr. Henigan. Why it is that in Maryland, which has this system, they have spent $4 million on this system. I don't live in this crazy state anymore, I used to. But that's why the taxes are so high. And as a result, they have had no convictions, no arrests. What kind of efficiency is that?

HENIGAN: This is a complete distortion. The Maryland law is brand new. It's only been in existence for a year. It takes guns a certain amount of time after they're sold by a retail gun dealer to be used in crime. The law enforcement community says there is no question that this system can work.

How do you think we were able to establish that this same gun was responsible for multiple murders? Because we compared the markings on those casings. The one missing link is we don't have that national database to be able to tell exactly which gun that was and then trace it to the first retail buyer, a tremendous law enforcement tool.

The reason we are not doing this is because of the paranoia of people like Larry Pratt and the gun lobby who keep crying everything constructive we do about gun violence will lead ultimately to confiscation of guns.

PRATT: I'll point out that in New York City, after 25 years of being promised that the registration of long guns would not lead to confiscation, they changed the rules. And it did lead to confiscation. California tried to do the same thing. But when we found about it, that kind of backed them off at least for a while.

HENIGAN: Yes, but, Larry, you said the Brady bill was going to lead to registration; it was going to lead to confiscation.

PRATT: Well, it has as a matter of fact. And the FBI has an illegal database of all the people who have been buying guns. So you have got a registration list from the instant background check. You are proposing that you get another one from this kind of a bullet signature system. And I frankly don't -- I'm not convinced that you want to do anything else than some day use it to do what New York City did, because you're not going to catch crooks with it.

HENIGAN: Larry talks about what might happen some day. I'm talking about today. There's a sniper on the loose. People in this community are living in mortal fear right now. We could find this guy if we had the technology to do it.

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