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Published: Wednesday, 10/16/2002

Bush backs look at high-tech gun `fingerprinting'


WASHINGTON - Reacting to a deadly series of sniper killings in the Washington area, the White House asked federal law enforcement officials yesterday to determine whether “ballistic fingerprinting” technology would be an effective crime-fighting tool.

The White House appeared to have a change of heart about the issue after earlier expressing doubts about the reliability of such technology and saying it could undermine rights of law-abiding gun owners.

The system uses markings from bullets and shell casings like fingerprints to link specific handguns with gun crimes.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said White House domestic policy officials met with representatives of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

“We have asked the ATF to have their experts look into and explore the issues involved to determine if this would be an effective crime-fighting tool,” Mr. McClellan said.

He said the officials were asked to look into the feasibility and technology, as well as law enforcement experiences in New York and Maryland, two states where ballistic fingerprinting programs are in place.

The Bush administration earlier had taken a more dismissive attitude.

“New laws don't stop people like this,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said of the sniper, who has killed nine people in two weeks.

He said ballistic markings can be easily altered, rendering the “fingerprints” useless. He suggested a mandatory system of ballistics monitoring could violate the privacy of lawful gun owners.

Legislation to establish a national ballistic fingerprinting system has languished on Capitol Hill for more than two years. Congressional leaders who support such a program said it is too late to do anything about it this year.

But the House did pass a bill yesterday to expand the national database used to check gun buyers by including a more comprehensive list of those with mental problems, criminal histories, and other disqualifying characteristics.

Proponents say that national ballistic fingerprinting would be a more effective method of keeping down crime.

Opponents of the system say that it would be ineffective because markings change slightly each time a gun is fired, making matches over time difficult if not impossible. They said it would be of little use for stolen guns, which are often used in crimes.

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