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County may start participating in national ballistics database

Thursday, September 15, 2022 by Seth Smalley

The first of three gun violence prevention briefings was held Sept. 8 at Travis County Commissioners Court, drawing a diverse crowd from police officials to intervention groups and diversion program advocates. The bulk of discussion focused on a firearms shell casing database program called the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN, which is aimed at preventing gun violence by catching the perpetrators.

While the program exists in the city of Austin, Travis County does not currently participate in collecting shell casings and adding to the database. No action was taken at the briefing, though multiple commissioners expressed interest in the program.

Jeff Kennedy, group supervisor for the Crime Gun Intelligence Center, introduced NIBIN along with his partner Allen Darilek, the resident agent in charge at San Antonio’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The ATF website says NIBIN provides “actionable investigative leads” related to ballistics to help law enforcement. “The NIBIN Network … can help incarcerate armed violent offenders plaguing our communities,” the NIBIN page on the ATF website states.

According to Kennedy, the goal of NIBIN is to disrupt shootings by identifying and prosecuting shooters and their sources of crime guns.

“Really the goal of the program is disrupting the shooting cycle,” Kennedy said, referring to the tendency of shooters to use the same firearm at multiple crime scenes. “Sometimes it’s difficult to get in front of the first shooting, but once you have an event that takes place you start to develop intelligence leads and information.”

Kennedy briefly explained to court members how the database works to aid forensic investigations.

“Every time a firearm fires a round, that firearm leaves unique markings on that shell casing,” Kennedy said. “You could compare it to fingerprints or DNA.”

The NIBIN system compares microscopic 3D models of the shell casings left behind at crime scenes with a repository of other shell casings.

“With about 99.8 percent certainty, NIBIN can tell you that two shell casings were fired from the same firearm,” Kennedy said, while adding that it doesn’t give information about who actually pulled the trigger.

“This (NIBIN) ultimately streamlines investigative efforts and helps law enforcement agencies solve cases of violent crime more effectively,” said a press release circulated before the briefing.

Darilek pointed out a Rutgers and University of Missouri study that found when there are two separate shootings with the same gun, half of the time a third shooting occurs within the next 90 days.

“That’s kinda where NIBIN comes in handy for us,” Darilek said, drawing attention to the fact that NIBIN automates the process of comparing ballistics. “We want to interrupt that cycle at that point.”

The cost would include the price of the NIBIN machine, which is owned by a private company and costs roughly $250,000, and associated staff to run the machine. (San Antonio has eight NIBIN techs, for example.) National grants can fund the machine, according to Travis County District Attorney José Garza, as well as “from time to time the personnel.”

County Judge Andy Brown described the briefings as “a good step” toward reducing gun violence in Travis County.

“With these briefings, we continue our efforts to develop a road map to combat the crisis and build the public safety ecosystem our community urgently needs,” Garza said.

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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