. . ‘ghost guns’ pose new challenges for crime-scene investigators

New methods are needed to do ballistics on plastic guns — before the weapons gain popularity

plastic revolver
An assembled plastic Washbear revolver sits inside a 3-D printer at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
MEGAN WOLFE/UNIV. OF MISSISSIPPI

By Carolyn Wilke

On December 17, 2017, police responded to reports of gunshots at a Phoenix apartment. When Cleophus Cooksey Jr. answered the door, his mother and stepfather were lying on the living room floor, shot dead. Police arrested Cooksey.

The double homicide seemed like an isolated incident, a violent end to a family dispute. But ballistics evidence gathered at the crime scene told an even bigger story.

Firearms leave telltale markings on the bullet and the cartridge case that’s ejected when a pistol or rifle is fired. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives catalogs these marks in the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN.

Police had collected cartridge cases from that Phoenix apartment. Within 48 hours, the NIBIN database revealed ballistics matches that linked weapons used in several other murders during the previous three weeks. Cooksey has been charged with killing eight people.

Although not perfect, ballistics evidence helps police pull suspects off the streets. NIBIN has yielded over 110,000 matches since it was launched in 1999. But a new type of gun — made of plastic using 3-D printers — may bring new challenges for forensics experts.

Use of a 3-D printed weapon “would make it very difficult for NIBIN to detect the signature of that weapon,” says Frank Fernandez, a retired police chief based in the Miami area who chairs the firearms committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Right now, violence involving 3-D printed guns is more of a risk than a reality. The most commonly available 3-D printers, which cost hundreds of dollars, may not print usable guns, and high-end models cost tens of thousands of dollars.

But 3-D printed guns have been confiscated at airport security checkpoints, including a disassembled gun seized July 3 at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. And in February, a Texas man who had been prohibited by a judge from possessing firearms was sentenced to eight years in prison for carrying a hit list and a gun with 3-D printed parts.

As 3-D printers improve and costs come down, some experts worry that more people will decide to print guns. Because knowing how to analyze the evidence 3-D printed guns leave at a crime scene may one day become an important skill, researchers are making and firing plastic guns to figure out the forensics of these DIY weapons.

Parts list

The Liberator handgun is built from mostly plastic parts made with a 3-D printer. A metal nail works as a firing pin to set off the internal explosion when the trigger is pulled. Blueprints for the gun were downloaded about 100,000 times within days of their 2013 release.

3-D printed gun parts
H. HONSBERGER ET AL/FORENSIC SCIENCE INTERNATIONAL 2018

Not a plaything
At less than a pound, the milk-colored pistol looks and feels like a toy. Its parts are formed from plastic spit out with precision by a 3-D printer. But the device shoots real bullets. . .

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