By Alan Gottlieb

Proponents of Maryland’s ”ballistic fingerprinting” law — enacted two years ago as a new tool in the war against gun crime — have some explaining to do, considering a string of sniper shootings during the past few days in the Maryland suburbs just outside Washington, D.C.

The Maryland law applies only to handguns, while the serial killer, or killers, used a rifle. But even if the law did include rifles, neither it nor a push for similar ballistic-fingerprinting laws across the nation would provide a serious crime-fighting tool. Before looking to expand the use of ballistic fingerprinting, lawmakers should ask how successful the Maryland law has been so far.

The answer is a no-brainer. Ballistic fingerprinting has not solved or prevented a single gun crime in Maryland. Chances are, it never will.

For ballistic fingerprinting to work as intended, a shell casing and/or bullet must be recovered at a crime scene. Markings on the bullet or casing must match those from a gun in a database. That gun must be found in the possession of the criminal who used it.

Since the majority of armed criminals use stolen guns, tracing a gun to its original owner accomplishes nothing.

Supporters of ballistic fingerprinting don’t tell you that a criminal can easily confound the system by changing the gun barrel or the firing pin, or otherwise altering the firearm. Gun experts know this. Ballistic-fingerprint proponents are not gun experts.

Consider the enormous cost of this program, estimated by the National Rifle Association to be $5,000 per shell casing. The computer system housing this information cost Maryland taxpayers $1.1 million. By one estimate, it takes another $750,000 annually to operate the system. At a time of shrinking state budgets, can Maryland taxpayers really afford this program?

Maryland’s ballistic-fingerprinting law has accomplished only what its opponents predicted. It has bogged down legal firearms purchases and created a de facto gun registry, two consequences that penalize law-abiding citizens while doing nothing to prevent the recent sniper shootings in the Washington suburbs. That, in itself, is an outrage for which proponents of ballistic fingerprinting should share the blame.