March 07, 2011

The (Non) Wonders of GPS Gun Tracking

What’s new on the cutting edge of crime fighting? In Massachusetts, State Senator Andrew Petruccelli (here) has reintroduced a bill to establish a commission to research the latest, greatest hi-tech hope to wipe out the scourge of crime in the People’s Republic: GPS tracking of firearms. But before exploring this newest Holy Grail of the gun-ban set, let’s review two of their more recent technological forays, both falling under the general heading of “ballistic registration (here).”

One scheme would require that all new weapons be delivered to authorities, usually the state police, who would fire and retrieve several bullets and expended casings and enter them into a massive graphics database for comparison with bullets and casings recovered at the scenes of crimes. Unfortunately, merely firing a firearm will, over time (potentially a very brief time), change the markings left on bullets through normal wear and tear. Many bullets are so mangled upon striking objects (and people) as to render meaningful comparison impossible. And of course, barrels and firing pins may be quickly and easily changed.

Another scheme is “microstamping (here),” which consists of etching tiny characters on a firing pin or other portion of the chamber of a firearm so as to leave unique, identifying marks on any fired case. Again, the unique microstamp would be entered into a database for comparison. The usual problems apply, including poor readability and longevity of the stamp, the ease with which it may be altered, or removed, unbelievably poor results in computer matching even known samples, widely varying hardness of cases and primers from manufacturer to manufacturer, and the fact that criminals need only pick up ejected casings, thus leaving no evidence to compare.

In fact, both schemes--particularly involving bullet registration--have been reviewed by scientific experts who have concluded that not only would they cost far too much, they cannot accomplish what their supporters (including then Illinois State Senator Barack Obama regarding microstamping) claim. In short, they just don’t work, and they don’t work at astronomical cost.

So how do the police solve crimes? Do they rely on hi-tech CSI units that can detect errant molecules and instantaneously match bullets, fingerprints and DNA with an enormous, powerful, all-encompassing database? Not even close. Most of the time, the police solve crimes by simply talking to people. Certainly, they gather evidence when it’s present and when it might be useful, but rare is the police officer who has not theatrically spread around a bit of fingerprint powder at the scene of a car or home burglary at the demand of the victim who has watched too much TV, knowing that they’ll find nothing, and that if they do, they won’t have suspects with which to compare it or any means other than the “Mark I Human Eyeball; 2 each,” to use in making comparisons. There is no central fingerprint database. There is no central DNA database. No one can simply insert a fingerprint or DNA sample into a computer and more or less instantly obtain a 100% positive match with a criminal suspect. The technology just doesn’t exist, at least not in the ways TV would have you believe.

Compelling as these flaws are, there is another, far more important reason why such schemes must be rejected: Even if they worked with 100% reliability and at low cost, they prove only that a certain firearm was associated with a crime. The venerable aphorism “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” applies. To obtain a conviction, the state must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a specific person committed a specific crime. Where firearms are involved, they must prove that not only was a specific person present at a specific place and time, but that they used that specific firearm to commit a crime.

“But it’s their gun! That should be enough!” Not in a system of justice with a presumption of innocence, where the State must prove guilt, not where the accused must prove their innocence. Guns are lost or stolen every day, and criminals can easily “borrow” and return a firearm without its owner ever knowing it was gone. In fact, criminals can easily toss firearms into a lake or run them through car shredders, and this is commonly done.

But Senator Petruccelli apparently believes we now have the technology to actually track individual firearms! Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is his sole motivation. Wouldn’t that be a great leap forward in crime fighting technology? As with the other technology-based gun control schemes, no.

While GPS transmitters are now smaller than they were even a few years ago, they are not sufficiently small to be implanted into firearms, particularly the handguns that are always the primary object of gun banner’s concerns, without compromising their design and functionality. Such implantation would also add substantially to the cost of each firearm, as much as $100 or more. For gun banners, this is a feature, but for rational people, it’s a bug.

Another significant issue is battery life. Any such scheme would require transmitters to operate continuously, so gun owners would find themselves changing batteries as frequently as weekly, and perhaps even more often. But again, for gun banners, this is a feature, a feature that would absolutely require two companion laws.

Criminalizing failing to immediately report a lost or stolen firearm would be a necessity. The only question would be whether to make a violation a misdemeanor or felony. For many people, a gun, stored in a closet or in the bottom of a drawer, might be missing for years before its absence was noticed, but turning the law- abiding into felons would surely be a small price to pay for such spiffy technology. And of course, failing to change batteries would also have to be a crime. Because failing to change batteries would defeat the entire system, it would certainly have to be a felony. Features? Bugs? It depends on your perspective on the Constitution and individual freedom.

Even with such “enlightened” laws, the technological hurdles would be insurmountable, the costs, unbearable. Any state-wide system would almost certainly require purpose-built satellite coverage. Such things tend to be a bit pricey, and considering NASA’s recent luck at satellite launching, futile. How would such a system work? Would it track millions of firearms, each continuously broadcasting its own discrete signal? Most would be stationary, resting in closets, drawers or gun safes...uh-oh...wouldn’t gun safes, being made of thick metal, block such relatively weak signals? So much for safe storage.

How many thousands of government workers would be required to monitor the system and dispatch law enforcement officers (Federal Bureau Of GPS Police?), and under which circumstances? How many firearms are being transported, legally and illegally, from place to place at any time of the day or night? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? Would the law require advance notice (or permission) of the movement of any firearm? Even from a closet to a workbench within a home? Are police dispatched when a battery dies and the signal ceases? Do they arrest the “criminal” who maliciously and with malign intent, allowed the battery to die?

It’s not hard to imagine the inherent problems, such as criminals leading the police on a merry chase following a gun transmitter on one side of town while guns with disabled transmitters are used to knock over a bank on the other. After all, if a criminal is planning robbery, or worse, what’s removing a battery? The costs for hardware, software (even if such a thing was actually possible) and personnel would be awe-inspiring, but hey, what’s a few trillion among friends, particularly during these heady days of huge, across-the-board budget surpluses?

The largest problem, the practical problem that renders the entire enterprise useless before it begins, remains: It’s still necessary to convict the criminal, not the tool he uses during the commission of his crime. GPS tracking would prove only--perhaps--that a given GPS discrete signal--not necessarily the GPS transmitter registered to a given firearm, or the firearm itself, was transmitting at a specific place and time. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to envision how such a system might be manipulated or spoofed. The police, as always, would still have to solve crimes the old-fashioned way, by talking to people, and the taxpayer would be much, much poorer.

I do, as it happens, have a better, more cost-effective use for the technology. Let’s make Democrat state legislators wear GPS trackers! Wisconsin and Indiana seem like good places to start. And I’m not talking about constant monitoring or any Orwellian plot like that. Combine, say, a GPS ankle bracelet with an injector for a powerful tranquilizer. If the battery dies, it’s sleepybye time! Tamper with the ankle bracelet, and it’s straight into the bonds of Morpheus. Come within 100 yards of a state line and they’re counting sheep. A small reserve battery would have to be included to send out a locator signal after the wearer took a dirt nap so that any nearby police officer could scoop them up and return them to their respective state capitol, where they could be propped up in their cushy leather chair so they could attend to the state’s business with their usual dilligence and efficiency.

But in all seriousness, Senator Petruccelli has performed a public service by reminding us—if our collective experience of the last two years under the Obama Administration has not--that big government exists to ignore the Constitution and to crush individual liberty. Should we allow it to remain at its current size, to say nothing of substantially reducing it, it will inevitably crush us, perhaps beginning in Massachusetts.

Posted by MikeM at March 7, 2011 10:39 PM

Another great idea from people who are full of them. It combines a high cost to taxpayers to implement and run the system, a massive pain in the rear for gun owners and manufacturers to comply with it, and a predictably futile result in achieving its stated purpose of catching real criminals.

What's not to love?

Posted by: Professor hale at March 8, 2011 08:48 AM

Shades of the brain-damaged state legislator who, some 20 or so years ago, tried to require seat belts on motorcycles.

Posted by: Capt Gregg at March 8, 2011 01:32 PM

Also, you can buy a GPS jammer for $30 on the internet. If you are willing to murder someone, and FCC violation isn't going to stop you.

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