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Testimony of Chief Cathy L. Lanier on Bill 17-843: Firearms Control Amendment Act of 2008

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Testimony of Chief Cathy L. Lanier on Bill 17-843: Firearms Control Amendment Act of 2008

Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

The following statement was presented by Chief of Police Cathy L. Lanier to the District of Columbia Council Committee on Public Safety & the Judiciary, Honorable Phil Mendelson,  Chair, on October 1, 2008, at the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.

Good morning, Chairman Mendelson, Council members, community members, and guests.  My name is Cathy Lanier, and I am Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department.  I am pleased to testify before you today about the important issue of firearms regulation in the District of Columbia. 

The District has long wrestled with the epidemic of gun violence that plagues our neighborhoods.  The Metropolitan Police Department and our partners in the criminal justice system are continually working to develop and implement better strategies to prevent gun violence, and arrest and prosecute violent criminal offenders.  Among the initiatives are the Gun Recovery Unit and the GunStat program.  In November 2007, I reinstituted the Gun Recovery Unit, staffed with officers with enhanced training on identifying and recovering illegal guns.  In March of this year, Mayor Fenty launched the GunStat program, a collaborative information sharing process among local criminal justice agencies, including police, prosecutors, Superior Court, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) and DC Pretrial Services Agency. GunStat tracks gun cases from arrest to prosecution, allowing criminal justice partners to identify repeat offenders, follow trends, and create law enforcement strategies to prevent gun-related crimes.  We are seeing positive results from these and other efforts; so far in 2008, violent gun crimes are down 12 percent. 

However, we have found ourselves faced with a new challenge since the Supreme Court issued its decision in District of Columbia vs. Heller.  Let there be no misunderstanding: there is no question of whether we will comply with the Court ruling. The Metropolitan Police Department has worked closely with Mayor Fenty, Acting Attorney General Nickles and others in the Administration to ensure that our laws and policies are in compliance with the Court decision.  But we are still working to determine the appropriate level of regulation for legally owned firearms.  For example, what steps might have the greatest benefits for public safety?  Which ones will be the most cost-effective?  We are still exploring these questions as we work to bring the firearms registration process into the 21st century.

As you know, there are no easy consensus answers on this hotly debated topic.  The laws and regulations vary greatly from state to state, and in some cases, from city to city.  The impact of firearms on communities also varies among jurisdictions, but some studies have found common outcomes that suggest a direct link between access to legal guns and increased violence.  According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – more commonly known as ATF – most guns used in crimes are obtained from legitimate channels – gun stores or gun shows.  A 2007 study conducted by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found a direct relationship between legal gun ownership and homicide rates.  This first nationally representative study found that gun-related homicide rates among children, and among women and men of all ages, are higher in states where more households have guns. According to the researchers, the results suggest that “household firearms may be an important source of guns used to kill children, women and men, both on the street and in their homes.”   These findings suggest that the issues we are grappling with today regarding regulating guns will have a direct impact on public safety.

The fact that  very few legal guns have been involved in crimes in the District, because there are so few legally owned firearms, should not change this conclusion.  The majority of handguns registered in DC over the past decade are in the possession of former law enforcement officers and licensed security agencies, a group with a higher level of training and understanding of the need to safeguard firearms than the general public.  Therefore it would be a serious mistake to assume that we do not need to be concerned about legally registered firearms based on this limited experience.  We have made real progress in driving down the homicide rate in the District over the past several years; we want to do everything possible to continue that trend. 

In addition to the violent crime that we see in our city everyday, we must also guard against potential terrorist acts.  I will not spend too much time on this today, but as I testified in September before the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, terrorists will take great steps to ensure they stay within the law up to and until they attempt a terrorist attack. For instance, the 9/11 Commission found that many of the 9/11 hijackers acquired some form of legal U.S. identification. 

Therefore, it does seem appropriate for DC to consider gun registration as a viable means to reduce potential gun violence. The District’s registration process serves four key purposes: verifying the eligibility of the owner to legally possess the firearm; ensuring that owners have a common body of knowledge; providing a certificate that enables law enforcement to readily identify legal firearms and the rightful owners; and establishing a means of tracking legal firearms that may be lost, stolen, or used in a crime. 

It is critical that the city be able to verify the eligibility of a person to possess a firearm. The criminal background check performed by MPD, which is based on fingerprints, is more effective than that performed by a gun dealer, which is merely based on a social security number. Indeed, a study published this summer found that states that perform local-level background checks for firearms have lower homicide and suicide rates than states that rely only on a federal background check. Local-level checks were associated with a 22-percent lower homicide rate and a 27 percent lower suicide rate in adults aged 21 years or older.

Two goals of the registration process are very similar to standard driver’s license processes. First, it is a means of ensuring that all registrants share the same basic level of knowledge.  I think we all agree that gun registrants should know the relevant laws and regulations.  In addition, two issues that merit further consideration are whether the city also needs to ensure that owners share a common understanding of safety measures, as well as a certain level of proficiency at using guns.  I am not ready to suggest that the city require firearm proficiency to own one. Unlike a driver’s license, firearm registration does not give the owner permission to use the gun on public space in the city. 

However, I believe the city has an important role in providing education on firearms safety to a registrant.  In addition to criminal gun violence, the city should also be very concerned about a potential increase in accidental injuries and their impact on public health and economic outcomes.  For instance, a 2007 survey of families with children and household firearms found that less than 30 percent store their firearms safely in their residence.   Moreover, parents need to be concerned not just with their own firearms, but with firearms in homes where their children visit.  Although I think the child access provisions that are currently law are sound, they should be reinforced with education. I would recommend that some safety information be communicated specifically to gun registrants, in addition to broader public information campaigns. One option is to mirror the Maryland requirement that applicants watch a video before receiving their registration.  This could potentially be done at firearms dealers, online, or at the MPD Firearms Registration Section.

Also similar to the driver’s license process, MPD issues a certificate with a photograph of the owner to all firearms registrants.  Registrants are required to have this certificate in their possession whenever they have the firearm in their possession. A registrant must also exhibit the license upon request of a law enforcement officer. I firmly believe that this certificate with photo identification is critical to public safety in the District. Without this, in many instances it will be far more difficult for officers to readily distinguish between a registered owner legally transporting a firearm, and someone carrying an illegal firearm.

Lastly, the registration process allows us to identify and track legal firearms that may be lost, stolen, or used in a crime. Given that legal guns are indeed used in crimes and associated with higher homicide rates, I think there is a clear reason for the District to continue to register firearms.  However, there is some debate about whether the technology is capable of helping us to link legal guns to gun crimes.  The debate focuses on the potential of two technologies to help make this link: one uses ballistics images and the other, microstamping.

The ATF uses ballistics images to help solve crimes by supporting a National Integrated Ballistic Information Network – or NIBIN, a national database of essentially digital pictures of bullets and cartridge casings.  When new ballistics images of crime scene evidence is entered into NIBIN, trained firearms examiners look for “hits,” a linkage of two different crime scene investigations through NIBIN where previously there had been no known connection.  According to the ATF, there have been tens of thousands of “hits” through NIBIN, linking criminals to multiple crimes, enabling us to hold offenders accountable and to bring closure to victims and their families.  MPD has recorded more than 800 hits over the past seven years.

To be clear, the NIBIN method compares ballistics across crime scenes, not to ballistics records for legally purchased firearms.  Maryland and New York, however, use an Integrated Ballistic Identification System – or IBIS, to track ballistics images of legally registered firearms. It has been reported that they have had very few hits against registered firearms from crime scene evidence.  I will explain in a moment some of the reasons why this might be.  But it is important to note that MPD was able to get solid evidence in a high-profile case based on crime scene evidence run through Maryland’s database on registered firearms.  I am sure many of you remember the triple homicide that occurred in the Colonel Brooks’ Tavern in 2003.  MPD was able to link the offenders to the crime when the crime scene evidence hit against a firearm legally registered in Maryland.  The gun had been purchased by the cousin of one of the perpetrators.  Despite the fact that we did not have the gun that was used, the ballistics and other evidence was so strong that one suspect committed suicide and two pled guilty.  The only suspect who went to trial was convicted. 

While Maryland and New York may not have had many hits using the IBIS method, I believe that the District may have better results with such a system for a couple of reasons.  The science of firearms examination is based on the unique “toolmarks” that a firearm leaves on a fired bullet and casing. Extensive experience in the criminal justice field indicates that the toolmarks left by a firearm are so distinct as to be essentially unique. On a practical level, this means that although there is no mathematical certainty of a “match” generated by NIBIN or IBIS, the program narrows the search, and then trained professionals compare images.  Maryland and New York may have limited success with IBIS because of practices that increase the error rates in the “hits.”  For instance, in Maryland, laboratory technicians who were not qualified firearms examiners captured the ballistics images, which overall probably decreased the quality of the images.  In contrast, MPD would use trained firearms examiners. Another issue may be the authenticity of the cartridge casings entered into the database of registered firearms. Both Maryland and New York enter casings submitted by gun dealers, and Maryland has found at least one dealer that was not submitting authentic casings. Since MPD is firing all weapons to retrieve the ballistics, we would not have that problem. We are also able to increase the likelihood of matches by firing two types of bullets: both copper and nickel. Because the metallic composition of the bullet can have an impact on the image, having images from multiple types of bullets would make the District database more robust.

The District would also have a more robust representation of crime scene evidence than either Maryland or New York. The Maryland and New York State Police maintain their databases for the legally registered firearms, but local jurisdictions process most crime scenes.  Many of them, including New York City, do not enter all crime scene ballistics against IBIS. In the District, MPD would be tracking both the registered guns and the crime scene evidence, thereby increasing the probability of a hit.

Thus I think there are several ways that MPD could improve the use of IBIS and achieve better results.  Nevertheless, before we purchase an IBIS system for use with our firearms registration, I want to be sure that we will be able to use it efficiently. One potential drawback to the IBIS system is that our ability to use old ballistics evidence already in NIBIN may be limited. The Department would need to request permission from ATF to bring NIBIN data into IBIS.  I am submitting this request to ATF at the same time that my staff is talking with New York and Maryland about other procedures they may be using.   

Although there are several concerns about the value of using ballistics to link crime scene evidence with registered firearms, it does not seem that microstamping is ready to replace ballistics testing yet.  Microstamping technology uses a laser to etch a pattern or code onto the head of a firing pin or another internal surface of a firearm.  Like the traditional firearms tool marks, microstamps leave a mark on a cartridge case.  It appears that several studies on microstamping have reached different conclusions.  Most recently, a study by the Forensic Science Graduate Group at University of California—Davis indicated that the technology is feasible, but its performance and durability varied.   There were some questions about the validity of the study when the findings were first released. The fact that the findings were released at a politically sensitive time – during the debate in the California legislature on microstamping –  may have contributed to a sharp reaction to it.  But the study has now been subject to peer review and has been officially released with the support of the university president.  

After reading materials on this technology, I can only come to the same conclusion as UC—Davis as well as the well-regarded National Research Council:  more research should be conducted before we adopt the technology. The Department will certainly continue to explore it.  As you know, I am strongly committed to ensuring that MPD has the technology that supports our mission.  I look forward to meeting with some of the proponents of the technology here today.  In the meantime, until more questions about the technology are answered, I strongly recommend that MPD continue to collect ballistics samples for registered firearms for the time being.  Rest assured, I certainly want to resolve this question expeditiously, but I do not want to make a hasty decision.  It would be foolish to act too precipitously and lose the opportunity to capture the casings from the firearms being registered now.

In conclusion, I think that the registration process for firearms is vital and enhances public safety.  It enables MPD to verify eligibility through a local background check, a process that has been found to reduce homicide rates.  It also provides an opportunity to educate registrants about vital laws, responsibilities, and safety.  The registration certificate helps MPD to identify illegal firearms, while the ballistics testing can help MPD to investigate and solve crimes. 
Beyond the value of the initial registration, I think there would be real public safety benefits to requiring firearms to be re-registered every five years. This would enable MPD to verify that the owner has maintained eligibility, and to update the registration certificate with the owners current address and picture.  It would also help to ensure that people accurately report when firearms are lost or stolen.  We would not, however, need to conduct another ballistics test during this process.  But I believe it is sound public policy to establish the requirement now, with the commitment to develop an efficient and effective process in the future.    

Thank you for the opportunity to present this statement for the record. I will be happy to answer any questions that you have.