IN working to solve the hundreds of thousands of gun crimes that occur in America each year, law enforcement authorities typically rely on the spent shell casings from firearms used in crime to aid their investigations.
Information stamped on the casing as well as unique markings left by a gun's firing can aid police in identifying the type of firearm used. Such markings can also be used to link a specific firearm to seemingly unrelated shootings. This key investigative tool may soon be lost as the result of a technological innovation in firearms and ammunition design: caseless ammunition.
In standard ammunition the propellent is contained in a metal shell casing with the bullet at its front end and the primer at its rear. When the bullet is fired the casing remains. In caseless ammunition a hardened chemical propellant - in which the bullet and primer are embedded - replaces the casing. When the gun is fired the propellent burns completely, leaving no telltale casing.
According to the recent Violence Policy Center (VPC) study ``Phantom Ammo: The Advent of Caseless Ammunition,'' this year Voere of Austria began exporting to the United States the VEC-91 (Voere Electronic Caseless) rifle using the Usel Caseless Cartridge. Unlike standard firearms, the Voere rifle uses an electrical charge to fire the ammunition. (A previously developed and as yet unmarketed prototype battle rifle - the Heckler & Koch G-11 - uses a standard firing mechanism.)
Although sales of the Voere have reportedly been light, whether or not the gun is currently a commercial success is a moot point. Because new technology often leads to increased sales, it is likely that the firearms industry will aggressively market caseless ammunition and adopt an unyielding stance in support of it.
Writing in the February 1993 issue of American Firearms Industry, National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers President Andy Molchan said of the Voere: ``Why is this new rifle significant? Because it is different. The fundamental problem with the long-gun market is that most of the models are 60 to 90 years old. Without new models that have major technical changes, you eventually exhaust your market. You get to the point where 90 percent of the people who might want one have one already.''
Lamenting the company's decision to house the caseless system in a gun that looks like a traditional sporting rifle, Mr. Molchan adds, ``with the addition of a high-tech design, it could do for the long-gun market what [the] Glock [17 handgun] did for the handgun market.''
The Glock 17 - the first handgun to use large amounts of plastic in its structural design - gained notoriety in 1986 when concerns were raised that the gun was the harbinger of a new generation of plastic handguns able to evade detection by metal detectors and X-ray machines. As a result, in 1988 legislation was enacted requiring that all new firearms sold in the US meet minimum detection standards. The legacy of the Glock - which met the standard - was a burgeoning pistol market and the revelation that new technology could be used to resell America's gun owners.
Caseless ammunition is similar to the Glock and plastic handguns not only for its sales possibilities but also for the public safety threat it may pose. Although types of weapons and loading systems exist that do not automatically eject a shell casing, caseless ammunition may portend a sea change in ammunition technology.
Concerns over caseless ammunition will most likely be denounced by the firearms industry as a Trojan Horse designed by gun-control Luddites to ban all ammunition. Attention should focus, however, not only on the crippling effect caseless ammunition could have on individual police investigations, but also on such programs as the Federal Bureau of Investigation's nascent ``Drugfire'' database system. Drugfire attempts to link unsolved shootings in a specific region using firearms ballistic evidence - such as shell casings - from local, state, and federal authorities.
The VPC study recommends that Congress conduct hearings to examine the problems caseless ammunition may present and immediately direct the Office of Technology Assessment to further study the issue; that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) request Voere to discontinue voluntarily export of its rifle and ammunition to the US; and that Congress grant ATF statutory authority to regulate the availability of firearms technology that poses a threat to public safety.
Over the past decade a litany of firearms issues - armor-piercing ``cop killer'' bullets, plastic handguns, and assault weapons - have illustrated the frailties of a system that allows an industry to develop and market potentially dangerous technologies without the pre-market scrutiny undergone by other inherently dangerous consumer products such as medical devices, pesticides, and prescription drugs. Unless Congress and ATF act, ``phantom'' caseless ammunition may be the newest deadly addition to this growing list. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.