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Television and Gun Accuracy Don't Mix


Has “Burn Notice” gotten new writers? They used to have some very insightful comments about guns and crime (e.g., see the episode in season 2 entitled “Lesser Evil”). Yet, now one needs a scorecard to keep tracks of all the errors in some of the shows. Take some of the errors in the most recent show, “Partners in Crime,” posted on Hulu.


At 10:10 into the episode, Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell) explains to Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan) that an individual who they are checking up on in Florida, “Owns a gun, but it is registered.” The only problem is that Florida, where the show is said to be occurring, and the vast majority of the rest of the US, doesn’t have gun registration. Indeed, only four states require the registration of handguns and one state requires the registration of all long guns (several other states require the registration of so-called “assault weapons.”

At 16:20 Sam Axe says: “The cops are probably matching ballistics right now even without your gun.” Ugh? Now I concede there’s possibility that this comment might have been geared solely to freak out Tim (the suspected thief”, but given the previous conversation about guns being registered between Weston and Axe, I am not so sure. And there are never any knowing winks between the main characters to indicate that they are in on some joke they’re playing on the bad guy.

Now the only possibility is that two states (Maryland and New York) have spent millions of dollars registering the ballistic fingerprints of new handguns before they’re sold. The notion is that this data bank could then be used to catch criminals from bullets found at crime scenes. But this never solved any violent gun crimes for the simple reason that the friction from the barrel that produces markings on the bullets also causes the inside of the barrel to wear (read: “change”) and thus produces different markings on bullets over time. Also two barrels that come off the same assembly line will initially very likely produce essentially the same markings on a bullet (it would be like taking molds of all new tire treads with the notion of keeping them on file to help solve crimes where tire tracks are available).

Finally, at 35:30, Michael Weston has this conversation with the bad guy in the episode.

Michael Weston: [The gun] was stolen and the serial number has been filed off.

Damon (Jeff Parise): Which means that it is untraceable.

Michael Weston: Completely untraceable.

Again, I concede that it is possible Mr. Weston knew this statement was false, but that he made it anyway to freak out Damon. In this case, though, part of the statement is true and part of it is false. Why add in incorrect information if you have a strong explanation anyway and the false information might let the person you are trying to trick think you don’t know what you are doing? It is particularly troublesome in this show because the whole premise is that Mr. Weston has all the angles on potential problems thought through.

The false part of the statement involves the claim about serial numbers. Serial numbers can’t really be effectively filed off. The stamping of the number into the metal creates structural abnormalities in the metal below the stamped number that can be discerned by a forensics lab. The portion of the metal where the numbers were stamped is denser than the surrounding metal and that makes it possible to determine the original serial number.

Now the statement about the gun being stolen is a different matter because there is no one to trace the gun back to. That said, given the earlier statement in the show about gun registration, registration doesn’t work to solve crimes. In theory, if a gun is registered and it is left at the scene, it could theoretically be traced back to the owner. There are a couple of problems with that. 1) Crime guns are virtually never left at the scene of the crime. When they are left at the scene it is almost always because the criminal has been seriously wounded or killed, and thus you are going to catch the criminal anyway. 2) Even when the crime guns are left at the scene they turn out not to be registered to the criminal who left them at the scene.

Here’s a link to a piece that I wrote for the Canadian Newspaper “The National Post” a few years ago. Additional information is available in the forthcoming third edition of More Guns, Less Crime.

Don’t get me wrong, the show is still entertaining, but the frequent factual errors can become quite disconcerting. “Burn Notice” used to really stand out from other television shows for its insightfulness. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. One suspects that political correctness on gun issues might be the cause for the changes.

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