Recent proposals by the South African Police Service (Saps) to establish a national “ballistic fingerprint” database of legally owned firearms in South Africa and for this database to be used as a forensic tool in criminal investigations is a largely futile and wasteful exercise in Saps’ endeavour to link firearms to crimes, according to the SA Hunters and Game Conservation Association.
The association’s findings are based on a recently published e-book by David Klatsow, Defective Science, which was funded by the broader firearm community and examines the validity of ballistic imaging, showing that there is little evidence to prove that a certain bullet or cartridge has been fired from a particular firearm.
Klatsow conducted extensive controlled ballistic testing in which he used a variety of different firearms and ammunition from different manufacturers to discharge shots into a ballistic tank. By doing so, he was able to examine the discharged bullets and spent cartridges for unique distinguishing marks and investigated the possibility that simple procedures, using common materials, could change the “ballistic fingerprint” of a firearm.
Klatsow took his findings to forensic experts in the UK and the Netherlands for further scrutinising. Experts from both countries concurred with similar studies done in the US that rejected the costly establishment of a ballistic imaging database as an effective and reliable forensic tool.
In Klatsow’s book, he determines that firearms do not always leave unique markings on the ammunition fired through them. This means that ballistic fingerprinting cannot be considered a reliable forensic tool.
Klatsow’s book also points to the practice of comparative ballistic science being highly subjective, providing opportunity for bias. The book also highlights that fingerprint can change over time, as a firearm ages with wear and tear.
Therefore, according to Klatsow’s findings, an effective national ballistic imaging database is not feasible, as the variables of ballistic fingerprinting are too great. The possibility of false matches multiply with the size of the ballistic imaging database.
The SA Hunters and Game Conservation Association states that, in line with findings of the book, the cost/benefit ratio of a national ballistic imaging database is exceptionally high, and “too much money” would be spent for “too little benefit”.
Overall, the association points out that the use of ballistic fingerprinting in criminal investigations could lead to a miscarriage of justice.