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April 06, 2023

Ballistics database to help police in Philly suburbs solve shootings, track illegal guns

Investigators in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties now have access to a 'game-changing' technology. Here's how it can help identify violent criminals

A ballistics database soon will be used across the Philadelphia suburbs to help detectives trace illegal firearms and more quickly solve gun crimes.

Each firearm leaves a unique signature on the bullet casings when it's fired – much like a fingerprint. The National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, a technology acquired by Montgomery County prosecutors, allows investigators to compare shell casings recovered at crime scenes against the 5.7 million included in its system, potentially connecting casings to guns used in other shootings.

Once ballistics evidence is inputted into the system, the NIBIN creates a list of high-probability matches that are later confirmed by a firearms examiner. Detectives then can use these leads, along with additional evidence, to identify suspects. 

Two types of evidence can inputted into the database — bullet casings recovered at the scene or those seized from guns that are test fired. Casings found at crime scenes in, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties will be transported to a crime lab in Montgomery County within 48 hours to be inputted into the NIBIN system before being sent back to the county for further investigation. 

"This is a game-changer in combatting gun crimes and gun violence," Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele said. "With this NIBIN portal, Montgomery County and the surrounding counties are in a position to be able to quickly respond to gun crimes that are linked together in a timely manner and disrupt the shooting cycle by these trigger pullers." 

The NIBIN system has been touted as one of the most effective ways to combat gun violence. It has generated 640,000 leads, with 145,000 hit confirmed, since it was implemented by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 1997. Last fiscal year, more than 630,000 pieces of evidence were acquired and nearly 190,000 leads were generated at 278 NIBIN sites, according to the ATF

There are now 293 NIBIN machines operated by law enforcement agencies throughout the country, including seven in Pennsylvania. 

Still, some concerns about its effectiveness remain due to the inconsistency of ATF's commitment to the program nationwide. Only a small percentage of police departments use it. The federal agency has been working with law enforcement agencies to implement the program, explaining its ability to connect detectives to the small number of people responsible for vast amounts of violent crime, The Marshall Project reported. 

In 2016, John Risenhoover, the former national coordinator of NIBIN for the ATF, told The Marshall Project that NIBIN can be "phenomenal" if agencies use it in a real-time manner, but he said the program has been a "huge waste of cash" due to backlogs of evidence awaiting to be inputted into the system. 

Still, the impacts of NIBIN can be felt in cities that are dealing with an influx of gun-related crimes. In Cincinnati, police are using the system to trace illegal guns and to identify those used in multiple shootings. In Washington state, police have seen success using the program to revive "dead end" cases. 

After the system was implemented in Philadelphia, police connected four separate shooting incidents to a single suspect. Police found an unlicensed handgun during a vehicle search, and then used the system to connect the driver to all four shootings within a few days. He later was sentenced to at least 178 years in prison, a rarity for non-homicide convictions in Philadelphia. 

Funding for the NIBIN system comes from the Liberty Mid-Atlantic HIDTA, a federal program that works to curtail drug trafficking in the Delaware Valley. Gun traffickers are frequently involved in drug trafficking and drug traffickers are often armed with illegal guns, crime data shows. 

Though much attention has been paid to Philadelphia's gun violence crisis, the suburbs are not immune from violent crime. 

Montgomery County also has launched a gun violence task force made up of more than 100 cops and detectives that are working to investigate gun trafficking. 

"We are working at being at the forefront of investigating and prosecuting gun trafficking in the region, and we've obtained some significant sentences in our county for these crimes that are an extreme threat to the safety of our communities," Steele said. "Now we have at our disposal cutting-edge technology in NIBIN and more law enforcement boots on the ground to take it to the next level in fighting gun crimes."