New System Fights Crime By Fingerprinting Guns

Like fingertips, firearms leave unique identifying marks that can help police track which guns were used in which crimes

FOUR Washington murders, and the father-and-son team were still on the loose. No one could link them to the homicides, they apparently thought. What they didn't count on was a ''seeing computer'' named IBIS.

Bullets from their Glock weapon were ''fingerprinted'' by IBIS -- the Integrated Bullet Identification System -- and matched to their gun in seconds. Today the two men from Lynchburg, Va., are sitting in jail.

IBIS -- the new tool of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) -- is revolutionizing bullet identification. By taking a 360-degree laser picture of bullets, IBIS can trace the unique ''fingerprints'' each gun leaves on the rounds it fires.

Not only does such precision enable quick matching -- an average of four seconds, compared with hours or weeks for other systems -- but IBIS can also generate its own investigative leads.

Finding a gun

Here's how it works: IBIS uses a laser to take a 360-degree photograph of the markings left on a bullet by a firearm's rifling. The markings are photographed into the machine by a high-powered microscope.

Accurate to 1/10,000th of an inch, the bullet's ''fingerprint'' is stored in IBIS's data processor, ready for identification.

Whenever a bullet photographed exactly matches one in the database, the computer tells the operator there's a match.

Bullets or casings recovered in unsolved homicides are treated in IBIS. It may show that several came from the same gun. That might indicate a serial killer, an ATF spokesman says.

Or a bullet or casing recovered from a homicide in one city might match a homicide in another locale; either the criminal or the weapon traveled. Police have knowledge of connections they would not have otherwise.

The final identification is done by a human firearms examiner. ''Obviously, a machine can't go into court and testify,'' explains Captain William L. Hennessy, commander of the homicide division of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (DCMPD) in Washington. ''But IBIS can save us up to a year in investigation time.''

''Over 4,000 guns a year are taken from the streets of Washington, D.C.,'' says Joseph Masson, an ATF Firearms Examiner. ''If I had to look at every bullet with that scope over there [using a traditional method], I would retire.''

''Once IBIS narrows down possible matches,'' says Mr. Masson, ''we may only have to compare two or three bullets by hand.''

The firearms expert who identifies the final match will testify as the expert in court.

''It's an important break-through, because a computer can do a lot more than a human can do,'' says Paul Giannelli, a law professor and co-author of ''Scientific Evidence. ''But the actual testimony of the expert has not changed.''

''It's a subjective judgment based on objective data,'' Mr. Giannelli says.

Glock tied to other killings

In the case of the two Lynchburg men, the Glock seized by District of Columbia detectives while investigating one homicide was confirmed by IBIS to be the weapon used in four other homicides, two of which DCMPD detectives had not known were related to the others.

IBIS, the only forensic identification system of its kind in the world, was designed and created by Forensic Technology Inc.'s 75-year-old computer ''whiz-kid,'' Roman Baldur.

Finding a faster way

Mike Barrett, a ballistics expert, believed computer technology could be harnessed to match bullets and casings with weapons faster.

Mr. Baldur, an engineer and professor at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal who specializes in computers ''that see,'' seized Barrett's idea. ''If there are lines on a bullet that a camera can pick up, I don't see why we can't do it,'' Baldur said.

The first IBIS, nicknamed ''Bulletproof,'' was installed in an ATF laboratory in August 1993.

By December, another unit was operating in the DCMPD firearms identification department.

IBIS is now in use at ATF laboratories in Maryland, Georgia, California, and North Carolina. Another unit was installed in Boston on March 1, and others are slated to be installed in Houston, Chicago, New York City, and New York State.

''Regional linkups are now in the works,'' says Joe Vince, chief of firearms division, ATF. ''By linking the acquisition part -- the part that 'sees' -- with a centrally located second part of IBIS, the identifying segment,'' he says, ''information can be shared from city to city, even state to state.''

Gun-Link, an organization of crime laboratories located in the San Francisco Bay area, has been earmarked for $3.1 million in funding by the House Appropriations Subcommittee for a state-wide linkup experiment that, if successful, will serve as a pilot program for the nation.

Gun-Link's funding, included in the Treasury, Postal and General Government appropriations bill for fiscal 1995, is the result of a bipartisan effort, spearheaded by Reps. Jim Lightfoot (R) of Iowa, a former police officer, and Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland.

''We'd hate to see a valuable law enforcement tool lost due to a lack of funding,'' Mr. Lightfoot says. ''It's an exciting technological breakthrough and we're going to give it serious funding considerations.''

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