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New findings debunk reliability of ballistic fingerprinting of Firearms

Plans by the South African Police Services to establish a national” ballistic fingerprint” database of all legally held firearms owned in South Africa as a forensic tool in criminal investigations, have been exposed as a wasteful and largely futile exercise to link firearms to crimes.

A recent scientific study by David Klatzow, funded by the broader firearm owning community, to examine the validity of ballistic imaging has shown that there is very little evidence to prove that a certain bullet or cartridge has been fired from a particular firearm. In the electronic book Defective Science, released on 4 December 2017, Klatzow concluded that the ‘practice of comparative ballistic science is highly subjective and provides ample opportunity for bias.’

Klatzow, who has been involved with criminal prosecutions involving ballistic evidence for 34 years, was commissioned by the South African firearm owning community, to investigate the validity of ballistic fingerprinting as forensic tool and the feasibility of establishing a national ballistic imaging database, as intended by SAPS. This follows on plans by SAPS to start ballistic testing of legally owned firearms.

Klatzow conducted extensive controlled ballistic testing in which he used a variety of different firearms and ammunition from various different manufacturers to discharge the shots into a ballistic tank. He examined 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.

Klatzow took his findings to forensic experts in the UK and the Netherlands for further input and comments. Experts from both countries concurred with similar studies done in the USA that rejected the costly establishment of a ballistic imaging database as an effective and reliable forensic tool.

Klatzow concluded that:

  • Firearms do not always leave unique markings on the ammunition which is fired through them. Therefore, ballistic fingerprinting is unreliable as a forensic tool.
  • The practice of comparative ballistic science is highly subjective and provides ample opportunity for bias.
  • The ballistic fingerprint of a firearm can be changed using simple procedures and common materials.
  • The ballistic fingerprint of a firearm can change over its lifetime.
  • 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 cost/benefit ratio of a national ballistic imaging database is exceptionally high. Too much money would be spent for too little benefit.
  • The use of ballistic fingerprinting in criminal investigations could lead to a miscarriage of justice.

Fred Camphor, CEO of SA Hunters and Game Conservation Association (SA Hunters) welcomed Klatzow’s findings. He said the law-abiding South African firearms’ community had to bear the brunt of endless irrational decisions by SAPS under the guise of law enforcement, while they are unable to sweep in front of their own door. “We hope that Klatzow’s recent findings will encourage SAPS to rather consider other meaningful and feasible measures to curb firearm-related crime in South Africa and stop persecuting the owners of legally held firearms,’ he said.

Defective Science by Dr David Klatzow

  • Last modified on Monday, 04 December 2017 12:32
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