9th September 2009 | Draft
Identification of Bullets: human right and human responsibility?
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Much is made of the implications of the arms trade and the spread of weapons,
notably manufactured by the permanent members of the United Nations Security
Council. This has become a fact of life and is accepted as such.
Curiously it is less evident whose weapons are used in the final killing
of individuals in combat -- especially the weapons used "illegally" by insurgents.
The following is a brief exploration of the possibility of identifying who
supplied the bullet which finally entered the body of the person maimed or
Does the person so wounded -- or the relatives of those killed -- have the
right to know who produced the bullet? Is this a fundamental human right
or a matter of human responsibility?
Whereas not many years ago it would have been considered ridiculous to sell
fruit individually identified by marks enabling their precise origin to be
determined -- even to the person who packed them -- such labelling is now
commonplace. The argument is that in the event of a threat to health associated
with the product, whether fruit or other consumer products, responsibility
can be precisely established. Such labelling may be a requirement governing
import of foreign products.
If precise labelling can be justified for sources of life-giving human nourishment,
because of their potential threat to health, is there not a case for denitrifying
those products intended as a means of incapacitating individuals, possibly
terminally? Do relatives have a right to the bullet by which a loved one
More generally is it appropriate to be able to indicate, with as much details
as possible, who was responsible for the manufacture of the bullet? Should
the bullets used in insurgency operations be a matter of public knowledge?
Fruit identification as a precedent
The objective of foodstuff labelling is to guarantee that consumers have
access to complete information on the content and composition of products,
in order to protect their health and their interests. Other information may
provide details on a particular aspect of the product, such as its origin
or production method. Some foodstuffs, such as genetically modified organisms,
allergenic foods, foods intended for infants or even various beverages, are
also subject to specific regulations. (Product
labelling and packaging, Europa
Summaries of EU Legislation).
(EC) No 1935/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 October
2004 on materials and articles intended to come into contact
with food notably establishes
the requirements which must be met regarding the traceability of food contact
materials from production to sale. The traceability
of food is currently assured by a Regulation dating from 2002. The concept
of traceability "from
farm to fork" was established in the White
Paper on Food Safety (2000). The traceability of food, feed, food-producing
animals and all substances incorporated into foodstuffs must be established
at all stages of production, processing and distribution. To this end, business
operators are required to apply appropriate systems and procedures.
There is of course an extensive literature on the identification of bullets
and the firearms that produced them (M. Bonfanti and J. De Kinder, The
Influence of Manufacturing Processes on the Identification of Bullets and
Cartridge Cases: a review of the literature, Science and Justice,
1999, 39, 1, pp. 3-10). The forensic techniques of ballistic
fingerprinting rely on marks that firearms leave on bullets
to match a bullet to the weapon by which it was fired.
However the focus is primarily
on the challenge in relation to crimes within countries. A notable emphasis
is placed on the traceability of firearms based on their rifling as evident
from examination of a bullet as reviewed by Daniel L. Cork, et al. for the
Committee to Assess the Feasibility, Accuracy and Technical Capability
of a National Ballistics Database, and the National Research Council (Ballistic
Imaging. National Academies Press, 2008). This assesses
the state of computer-based imaging technology in forensic firearms identification.
It offers an evaluation of current US law enforcement database of
images of crime-related cartridge cases and bullets and recommends ways to
improve the usefulness of the technology for suggesting leads in criminal investigations.
The book also suggests further research on an
alternate method for generating an investigative lead to the location where
a gun was first sold: "microstamping," the
direct imprinting of unique identifiers on firearm parts or ammunition.
This last recommendation is more relevant to the credibility of the
argument here, namely the addition of identification to the bullet
itself as a product independent of the firearm. Arguably it is the bullet
that kills, not the firearm. A patent issued in 1979 covers one such possibility
identification means, US Patent 4150624, 24 April
1979; Estimated Patent Expiration 26 May 1997). This is a method for identification
of bullets is provided whereby a coded insert is fitted within a cartridge
to accompany a bullet in its trajectory and provide source information
Several proposals have been made for the mandatory marking of bullets
to aid in ballistic fingerprinting. Some jurisdictions have passed
legislation to that effect. California, for instance, passed a bill AB 1471
which requires all new models of handguns to be equipped with microstamping
technology by 2010. Firearm
microstamping engraves the make, model, and serial
number on the cartridge and
on the face of the firing pin, which stamps the primer as
the firing pin impacts it.
Various computer-enhanced facilities exist to provide rapid identification
of bullets in multiple gunshot wounds, such as the Lodox/Statscan. This provides
rapid and whole-body scans. In multiple gunshot trauma, the conventional
radiograph or computed tomography scan might be time consuming, and the resuscitation
might be paused temporarily.
Use of new marking technologies: tracing tracers
Pollen/Metallic oxide coatings: It has been proposed
that ammunition manufacturers coat their bullets with pollen, or with a pollen
deposit coated with a metal oxide (Rob Crossley, Nanotech
can make every bullet a fingerprint, The Chemical Engineer,
9 September 2009). The 'nanotags', each measuring 30 µm
in diameter, are made from naturally-occurring pollen - a material
known for its superior adhesive properties. Pollen grains are sticky enough
and have a sufficiently hard outer case to survive being fired. They also
attach themselves to the clothing and hands of people who handle the ammunition
and the gun, providing an additional forensics clue (the pollen is extremely
difficult to wash off completely, according to the researchers). If manufacturers
used unique pollen varieties or unique mixtures of pollen and oxide coatings,
the manufacturing database could be used to quickly identify a bullet found
at a crime scene, assuming the investigating bodies equip themselves with
the necessary pollen-identification equipment.
Microdots: A major stimulus for new marking technology has been the level
of auto-theft in many countries. Whereas there have long been requirements
that vehicle parts should be uniquely labelled by etching techniques, these
can be effaced.
To prevent this loss of identification, one interesting development of potential
relevance to both firearms and ammunition is the use of microdots or
data dots. This is a text or an image substantially reduced in size onto
a 1mm disc to prevent detection by unintended recipients. They can be made
from various materials such as polyester. In the case of vehicles thousands
of these may be sprinkled within the vehicle. They are also used to trace
other property subject to theft. Various governments, companies,
and manufacturers have begun using microdot identification to protect their
Wider varieties of protection are applied using datadots, as distributed
Technology Limited (DDT), an Australian public company with
worldwide distribution. Of potential relevance to the application of this
nanotechnology to ammunition coding, in addition to firearms, is
the company's DataDotDNA
Metallic. This is currently applied via aerosol cans containing
25,000 Nickel Microdots each only 0.3 mm in diameter. These are resistant
to temperatures up to 800°C.
A 6 character PIN
code is applied on a holographic background image. The PIN code is registered
in the companies database. The temperature of a standard NATO rifle bullet
has been estimated to be around 267°C (Austin Richards, Measuring
the Temperature of a Speeding Bullet, R&D Magazine,
Fingerprinting metals: Of possible relevance is the gold
fingerprinting technique developed by
the Anglo American Research Laboratories (B Grigorova, et al, The
AARL Gold Fingerprinting Technology, Gold Bulletin,
1998). The technique provides
gold profiles unique to a given source. The procedure adopts a qualitative
approach based on the singular patterns produced by the minor and trace
element impurities present in gold. The generation of a Gold Bullion Databank
(GBD) has provided an effective means of ascertaining gold provenance
in cases where the origin is unknown (cf. James Randerson, Gold
fingerprint to foil forgers, New Scientist, 6 March 2004).
Molecular tracing: Molecular tracers
have been developed that allow manufacturers to monitor flexible and rigid
plastic packaging - at any stage in the supply chain - to help resolve security,
counterfeiting, quality, liability and other issues (Molecular
tracer tags rigid, flexible packaging, FoodProductionDaily.com,
28 July 2005).
Clearly health and safety legislation regarding food products "from farm
to fork" have clarified the justification for traceability and have resulted
in a high degree of implementation. Concerns with theft, notably in the case
of automobiles, have encouraged development of ever more sophisticated identification
The logic of the drug war has notably focused on the responsibility of producers
-- leading to the much publicized destruction of crops of poppies and of
The issue of gun control remains highly controversial, most
notably in the USA -- one of the few countries where the right to bear arms
is specifically enshrined in its Constitution (in the form of the Second
Amendment). The argument above is not however concerned with arms control
or the massive trade in small arms, frequently the subject of international
debate. It accepts the primary argument of the US National
Rifle Association that "guns don't kill people, people do". The right to bear arms may indeed
be essential to the viability of a particular understanding of democracy,
as previously discussed (Arming Civil Society Worldwide:
getting democracy to work in the emergent American Empire? 2003).
The argument here is that, consistent with that Second Amendment, everyone
might indeed "bear arms". Arms in that sense are purely decorative
-- without ammunition. It is only when the arms are loaded -- when the weapon
itself is "armed" -- that there is an issue of risk and responsibility.
The issue then, following the logic of fruit production and the responsibility
attributed to coca and poppy cultivation, is to identify responsibility at
the source of ammunition production. It is not, for example, the manufactuers
of syringes for the delivery of drugs. who are held to have any responsibility
in the matter. More interesting in fact is the potential responsibility of
the holders of the patents for the ammunition and their right to understand
how their final effects, as discussed previously (From
Patent Rights to Patent Responsibilities: obligations incumbent on owners
and licensors of intellectual property, 2007).
It is not a question of acting on that knowledge
but rather of making transparent that responsibility -- irrespective of
whether it is to be judged as responsible or irresponsible. Much is made
and appreciated in historical drama of the right of an individual to know
the name of the person by whom they may be killed -- if the death is to be
understood as honourable. Civil servants dealing directly with the public
and the fate of individuals are now specifically named at the counters where
the interaction takes place -- in contrast to practice not so long ago.
To what extent is it then an honourable human right to know the name of
the person from whom one's relative has received a fatal bullet? To what
extent is it an honourable human responsibility to provide that name, as
the crafter of that bullet? Or is such manufacture to be considered
a matter of shame and dishonour? (cf Honour
Essential to Psycho-social Integrity: challenge to the nameless of dishonourable
leadership, 2005; Varieties
of Honour and Dishonour: distinguishing intrinsic honour from honourable
The tragic twist is that such information might well reveal that the bullet
resulting in the death of a soldier in a combat zone came from the soldier's
own home town. It is obvious that the sale of arms by permanent members
of the UN Security Council may lead to them being used in combat against
one another. However the provenance of such ammunition is as yet less evident
in media reports of such engagements -- notably when it gives rise to
M. Bonfanti and J. De Kinder. The Influence of Manufacturing Processes on
the Identification of Bullets and Cartridge Cases: a review of the literature,
Science and Justice (Forensic Science Society), 1999, vol. 39, no
1, pp. 3-10
G. Burrard. The Identification of Firearms and Forensic Ballistics.
New York, A.S. Barnes and Company. (First American edition; originally published
in United Kingdom in 1934/1962.)
P. J. Cook and A.A. Braga. Comprehensive firearms tracing: Strategic
and investigative uses of new data on firearms markets. Arizona Law Review,
43, 2001, 2, pp. 277-309.
Daniel L. Cork, John E. Rolph, Eugene S. Meieran and Carol V. Petrie (Eds.).
Committee to Assess the Feasibility, Accuracy and Technical Capability of
a National Ballistics Database, National Research Council. Ballistic
Imaging. National Academies Press, 2008
J. De Kinder. Ballistic fingerprinting databases. Science
and Justice, 42, 2002, pp. 197-203.
G. Y. Gardner. Computer identification of bullets. AFTE Journal, 11,
1979, 2, pp. 26-33.
B. Grigorova, S. Anderson, J. de Bruyn, W. Smith, K. Stülpner and A. Barzev.
The AARL Gold Fingerprinting Technology. Gold Bulletin, 1998, 31(1)
L. C. Haag. Ballistic ID tagging (Presentation to the Committee
on the Feasibility, Accuracy, and Technical Capability of a National Ballistics
Database), December 2004
G. G. Krivosta. NanoTag markings from another perspective. AFTE
Journal, 38, 2006, 1, pp. 41-47.
J. E. Hamby. Identification of projectiles. AFTE Journal, 6,
R. G. Nichols. The scientific foundations of firearms and tool mark
identification: a response to recent challenges. 2005 [text]
G. B. Sánchez. Tracking crime gun by tracking
ammo: One bill to do that failed in legislature. Monterey County Herald,
2006, September 11
R. M. Thompson, M. Desrosiers, and S. Hester. Computerized
image analysis for firearms identification: The Integrated Ballistic Identification
System (IBIS) Brasscatcher performance study. AFTE Journal, 28,
- Bullet serial number proposal is tabled. Sacramento
Bee, 25 August 2005, p. A5.
bullets would help cops, supporters say. Sacramento Bee,
1 May 2005, p.A3.