Ballistic evidence plays a critical role in preventing, investigating, and prosecuting gun crimes. Evidence such as spent cartridges or fired bullets collected from a crime scene can be used to link a specific weapon to the crime, and at a broader level, comparing ballistic evidence collected from multiple crime scenes can help investigators connect cases, identify suspects, generate leads, and understand larger crime patterns.1William King et al., “Opening the Black Box of NIBIN: A Descriptive Process and Outcome Evaluation of the Use of NIBIN and Its Effects on Criminal Investigations, Final Report,” (unpublished report, 2013), 7-9, http://bit.ly/2BtZ93S; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), “Fact Sheet–National Integrated Ballistic Information Network,” accessed May 16, 2019, http://bit.ly/2My7kSQ. This process has been aided by the creation of the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), a program run by the ATF in conjunction with 186 partner sites throughout the country.2Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Minimum Required Operating Standards Audit For National Integrated Ballistic Information Network Sites,” accessed May 16, 2019, https://www.atf.gov/file/133581/download.
With NIBIN, criminal investigators submit ballistic evidence to a NIBIN site – typically located in a local or state law enforcement agency or crime lab – where it is then converted into a digital image using automated ballistic imaging technology.3King et al., “Opening the Black Box of NIBIN,” 7-9; The National Crime Gun Intelligence Governing Board, “Crime Gun Intelligence: Disrupting the Shooting Cycle,” August 2018, 2-3, http://bit.ly/2MyUy6N The image is then automatically compared against other models in the NIBIN database, producing a list of possible correlations that are manually reviewed and confirmed by a firearms examiner.4King et al., “Opening the Black Box of NIBIN,” 7-9. If a match, or “hit,” is confirmed, a report is given to investigators.5Ibid.
According to the ATF, NIBIN sites have processed approximately 99,000 leads and 110,000 hits since the program was established in 1999.6ATF, “Fact Sheet–National Integrated Ballistic Information Network.” At a strategic level, NIBIN matches can help investigators link different crime scenes and understand patterns in the gun-related activities of gangs and organized crime groups.7King et al., “Opening the Black Box of NIBIN,” 79. Even when hits do not directly lead to an arrest or prosecution, investigators have said that they still find NIBIN hit reports useful for providing background information about suspects’ activities and associations, a firearm’s history, and other leads to be investigated.8King et al., “Opening the Black Box of NIBIN,” 74-76.
Your law enforcement agency can participate in NIBIN by obtaining a NIBIN machine from ATF; doing so makes sense for larger agencies, particularly those in areas with high levels of gun violence. Other jurisdictions may send ballistic evidence to an existing state or regional NIBIN site. Necessary resources for NIBIN sites include trained personnel (e.g., firearms examiners, technicians, support staff) and ballistic imaging equipment, including machines to collect image data and run the image comparison software.“9Minimum Required Operating Standards Audit For National Integrated Ballistic Information Network Sites”; “Automated Firearms Ballistics Technology,” ATF, accessed May 16, 2019, https://www.atf.gov/firearms/ automated-firearms-ballistics-technology The ATF manages and funds NIBIN hardware and software, facilitates NIBIN training, and provides technical support to sites.10King et al., “Opening the Black Box of NIBIN,” 4-5.
Strategy in Practice
The ATF has outlined four critical steps for maximizing the success of NIBIN:
- Comprehensive collection and entry of all suitable ballistic evidence into NIBIN, regardless of the crime.
- Timely turnaround of entering ballistic evidence into NIBIN, analyzing matches and providing the results to investigators.
- Investigative follow-up and prosecution using the intelligence from NIBIN hit reports.
- Feedback to NIBIN partners regarding progress, successes, and potential improvements.11“Best Practices for NIBIN Sites,” ATF, accessed May 16, 2019, https://www.atf.gov/firearms/docs/undefined/ nibinbestpracticespdf/download
These four steps provide the foundation for ATF’s Minimum Required Operating Standards (MROS) for NIBIN sites, which were issued in 2018 and set forth requirements regarding staffing, equipment, and policies.“12Minimum Required Operating Standards Audit For National Integrated Ballistic Information Network Sites.” All NIBIN sites will be required to meet the MROS by the end of 2020.
Delays in turnaround time: Evidence should be submitted to NIBIN, and the results communicated to investigators, as quickly as possible.13ATF, “Best Practices for NIBIN Sites”; King et al., “Opening the Black Box of NIBIN,” 76-77.
However, limited resources and procedural obstacles can contribute to delays in the process.14Ibid. The 2018 MROS now require NIBIN sites to enter evidence into NIBIN within two business days of receipt from the law enforcement agency and to disseminate any leads to investigators within 24 hours.15ATF, “Minimum Required Operating Standards Audit.”
Lack of information in NIBIN hit reports: Too often, NIBIN hit reports do not contain enough meaningful information to provide investigators with actionable intelligence.16King et al., “Opening the Black Box of NIBIN,” 77. Hit reports could be more useful if they contained more information about possible suspects and motives, affiliations of victims and witnesses, and crime details.17King et al., “Opening the Black Box of NIBIN,” 77.
Failure to submit comprehensive ballistic evidence: The usefulness of the NIBIN database relies on having an extensive array of images to compare and link.18ATF, “Best Practices for NIBIN Sites”. Therefore, it is important that all suitable ballistic evidence be entered into NIBIN, regardless of the crime or whether the shooting was fatal.19ATF, “Best Practices for NIBIN Sites”; Police Executive Research Forum, “Reducing Gun Violence,” 23-25. The 2018 MROS set forth requirements for which types of firearms and ballistic evidence must be tested.20ATF, “Minimum Required Operating Standards.”
Agencies, Organizations, and Other Necessary Partners
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF): Oversees and manages the operation of NIBIN hardware and software, funds its acquisition and maintenance, provides technical support for NIBIN partner sites and offers training for NIBIN site personnel.21King et al., “Opening the Black Box of NIBIN,” 4-5.
NIBIN Sites: Housed in local or state law enforcement agencies and crime labs, the 186 NIBIN sites are at the heart of the NIBIN program and can facilitate your city’s participation. Interactive Map of NIBIN Sites.
What Else You Need to Know
A 2013 study found that:
On average, NIBIN sites receive evidence from approximately 715 criminal cases, 530 test-fire guns, and 102 “other” pieces of firearms evidence annually.22King et al., “Opening the Black Box of NIBIN,” 29.
NIBIN sites employ an average of 3.46 full-time firearms examiners, who are typically the ones responsible for inputting evidence into the system.23King et al., “Opening the Black Box of NIBIN,” 27.
NIBIN sites input evidence for an average of 39 different agencies for a year.
Eighty-six percent (86%) of the NIBIN database is comprised of spent brass, and 14% of fired bullets. Most of the spent brass inputs are from test-fires of confiscated firearms.24King et al., “Opening the Black Box of NIBIN,” 30.
Newsroom & Resources
NIBIN Website – Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
NIBIN Resources – Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
Minimum Required Operating Standards for NIBIN Sites – Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
Opening the Black Box of NIBIN – Office of Justice Programs
Opening the Black Box of NIBIN: A Descriptive Process and Outcome Evaluation of the Use of NIBIN and Its Effects on Criminal Investigations, Final Report.