By Gary Reaves WFAA-TV News, Dallas
Tracking the guns involved in crimes has always been a difficult and time-consuming process, but now in North Texas, what used to take days or weeks will now take only minutes.
Police believe guns seized from suspects or found at incident scenes also hold secret evidence of other crimes - and recent technology can help uncover that evidence.
Last week's shootout in Richardson provides an example of how this new system can help. When the so-called Takeover Bandits filled the air with bullets, each slug and shell casing they left behind became evidence, marked with scratches that match the bullet fragments to the gun used. The new system makes it easy to track where else that gun has been used.
"Once we have the gun, we can trace the gun, and we can go back and look at the past history of that gun and see who all has had it in the past," said ATF special agent Ronnie Carter.
Dallas and Plano have just built similar set-ups. Every gun they seize gets test-fired into a tank filled with 500 gallons of water. An evidence technician then fishes the bullets out of the water, and scans them with a high-power magnifying camera hooked up to a computer. The markings are as unique as a fingerprint.
The technician enters each sample into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network to try to match it against 800,000 images already in the database. Police officials said matches can lead to suspects - and convictions.
"We're really talking about thousands of incidents and weapons that were recovered, and trying to tie all this together," said Dallas police chief David Kunkle.
This is the same system credited with helping tie the snipers who terrorized the Washington, D.C. area three years ago to other crime scenes in Alabama and Washington state. The bullets Lee Malveau fired into a tree stump in his Seattle-area back yard helped convict him of killings on the other side of the continent.
"They were able to tie ... all those incidents together, and say all came from the same gun," Carter said.
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Dallas Police come across many guns. They have 60,000 in their property room, and destroy about 40,000 every year. Now, though, each will leave behind a new electronic fingerprint that can be used as evidence - even long after the gun has been melted into scrap.