October 25, 2002

Gun issues in the sniper

The recent series of sniper shootings around the nation's capital has triggered a renewed gun control debate. There is now a suspect in custody and we are currently learning more details about how these crimes were allegedly committed. The frightening thing is that it does not seem like any specialized equipment was needed to carry out the murders. They could have been committed with a normal hunting rifle. With this in mind, it would behoove us to think about how we control access to these weapons. Though the NRA will undoubtedly vehemently disapprove, the time has come to look again at an expanded registration system for rifles.

Each gun leaves a unique "fingerprint" on the bullets it fires. According to the Los Angeles Times, the mark is created on the bullet itself and on the spent shell casing. These marks can be linked with the serial number of the weapon to track down its origin.

Gun advocacy groups, quite rightly point out that this information is often worthless. If, for instance, a weapon has been stolen, then knowing who originally purchased it and when they did so is essentially irrelevant. However, that information does give police some idea of where the gun originated. Furthermore, it might help pinpoint how stolen guns are distributed to street criminals (common and otherwise). Obviously, for such a system to work, police would need not only the active cooperation of gun shop owners, but that of pawnbrokers and independent resellers who operate at trade shows. These people have historically been unwilling to cooperate with such laws. What they have to realize is that ultimately it is to their advantage to cooperate with law enforcement.

Americans are increasingly waking up to the reality that our open society is becoming a target. I do not refer only to attacks from abroad, but also to domestic terror incidents. Although this threat has not been emphasized recently, it still exists. Of course, keeping closer tabs on gun ownership will not, in itself, cause these threats to go away. It will, however, allow law enforcement to track which guns are used in particular crimes. Rifle tracking may allow law enforcement officials to determine the motivation for domestic terror crimes, but would not necessarily make a difference in terms of international terrorism. For instance, if al Qaeda operatives were to carry out attacks in the United States, they might use guns manufactured abroad, which would produce fingerprints not found in any database of American manufactured weapons.

In some sense, this plan is far too ambitious and prone to holes. It would require the full and complete cooperation of every American gun manufacturer. Given the current political climate and strength of such groups as the NRA, this is impossible. But government and industry working together could provide a partial solution. Even if only some manufacturers participated in the program to provide firing data for each weapon that they manufactured, that would provide some assistance to law enforcement efforts. Most likely, smart criminals would become wary of those weapons, as they would be less safe for the criminal to use. This would mean that there would be fewer guns that criminals could feel free to use.

On the other hand, law enforcement agencies would have to be very careful about how the plan to keep closer tabs on rifles would be implemented. There should be a way to allow gun owners to easily report when they have sold or given away a particularly weapon (ideally this could be done via the Internet). Likewise, buyers would have a way to register their ownership of a particular weapon. This would also make it easier for them to report a weapon as stolen.

Still, this system will not provide a simple answer to the problem of gun crime. It certainly would not stop a determined assailant or international terrorist. But it would provide law enforcement with another tool in its kit. While this would put a burden on gun owners, those that do own lethal weapons have an obligation to help protect society. There doesn't seem to be any real danger of government confiscation of legally held and used weapons under this system, or any reason to ban any sort of hunting weapon based on the sniper attacks alone. But we should think about ways to protect ourselves from similar incidents.