Wouldn’t it be nice to know whose rifle is firing the shots killing all those folks in the DC area? It might even help catch the guy doing the shooting. The police have already been able to use the markings on the bullets and shell casings to figure out that the same rifle fired all the shots; each gun has its own peculiarities, and leaves its mark on the rounds it fires. But right now there’s no way of identifying the gun itself.

It has been proposed that each weapon be fired before it leaves the factory, and the resulting “signature” recorded along with the serial number of the gun. The serial number, in turn, can be linked to the name and location of the retail seller. Any crime-scene evidence could then be compared to the database of “signatures,” and the gun thereby traced to whoever sold it, and thus to whoever bought it. It would be as if each bullet came with the serial number of the gun that fired it. Note that the database of “signatures” would not include the names of the buyers; they would be kept as now required, by the retail dealers.

Of course, the system wouldn’ t be perfect; guns change their “signatures” over time, and can also be deliberately modified for that purpose. But so what? There would be some null results, and some bad leads. That’s in the nature of police work. Presumably the technology would get better over time. But something is better than nothing.

Not according to the Bush Administration. Ari Fleischer says that the President is still worried that the technology is imperfect. And he recites the NRA mantra about killing already being illegal, so how is another law going to deter a killer?

That, of course, is complete nonsense. The point isn’t deterring killers; the point is being able to catch them. The question for the President is simple: Why is an imperfect investigative tool worse than none at all? And why is this the only issue on which the exigencies of what you keep saying is wartime shouldn’t override what in this case are fairly trivial privacy concerns?

[No, I’m not in favor of banning private gun ownership; see here for my tentative position on the gun question.]

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: