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Research in Brief: Using NIBIN Ballistic Imaging Hits for the Strategic Targeting of Violent Criminal Networks

William King; William Wells, Sam Houston State University, Texas; Charles Katz, Arizona State University; Edward Maguire, American University, Washington, D.C.; and James Frank, University of Cincinnati, Ohio

The IACP Research Advisory Committee is proud to offer the monthly “Research in Brief” column. This column features evidence-based research summaries that highlight actionable recommendations for Police Chief magazine readers to consider within their own agencies.
The goal of the column is to feature research that is innovative, credible, and relevant to a diverse law enforcement audience.

National Integrated Ballistic Information Network

The National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) program is designed to link evidence from firearms that are used at multiple crime scenes or link confiscated firearms to evidence from crime scenes. NIBIN “hits” link crimes involving the same firearm that were not previously known to be related. NIBIN is overseen by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and relies on partnerships with local agencies. As of early 2014, 150 crime labs or law enforcement agencies in the United States serve as NIBIN partner sites. Partner sites input evidence into the NIBIN database and search for and confirm ballistics hits. NIBIN has identified more than 50,000 hits since its inception in 1999.

The Research

With funding from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the authors conducted a study of the NIBIN program from 2010 to 2013. They surveyed all crime labs and firearms sections in the United States; gathered data from ATF related to the productivity of all NIBIN sites between 2006 and 2012; and collected detailed data from ATF on hits produced at 19 NIBIN sites. The study also included multi-day site visits to 10 NIBIN partner sites (forensic crime labs) and associated law enforcement agencies. During the research some agencies were identified using NIBIN hits strategically, to identify, target, and prosecute violent criminal networks like street gangs.

NIBIN’s Strategic Utility

Law enforcement agencies have historically focused on the tactical applications of NIBIN hits. In other words, NIBIN has been viewed as a helpful source of information for individual criminal cases by identifying a suspect in a particular crime such as a robbery or homicide. When applied tactically, NIBIN is used to identify individual suspects or criminals or to assist in leveraging plea bargains or stronger prosecutions. The tactical utility of NIBIN has been highlighted in brief reports and ATF’s “Hits of the Week.”

NIBIN, however, also has strategic value that can help law enforcement agencies understand larger patterns of gun crime. NIBIN can reveal latent patterns in gun use, gun sharing, and the gun-related criminal activities of groups like street gangs, drug cartels, and other organized crime entities. Analyzing NIBIN hits can help determine the commonalities and underlying relationships among the crimes and paint a picture of the network. The researchers found that, overall, NIBIN was rarely used for strategic purposes, but when it was, it was a powerful tool. Three specific strategic uses of NIBIN deserve mention.

Strategic Use 1: Onondaga County (Syracuse), New York, analyzes NIBIN hits to identify crimes involving the same gang. Some gangs share their guns, so these hits identify crimes attributable to a gang, but not necessarily to a specific person. Once a violent criminal network is identified, law enforcement uses organized crime statutes (e.g., RICO) to prosecute the group. One official in Onondaga County stated:

Cases that are cold we can solve through NIBIN, and [we are] getting violent guys off the street. They have community guns here. If you have a gun that has been used in five incidents, you might not be able to tie it to a person, but you can use it to tie to a group. It is a phenomenal tool. It is one of the most powerful tools in law enforcement.

Strategic Use 2: Kansas City, Missouri, takes a different approach to using NIBIN strategically. In Kansas City, a “lever pulling” project called NoVA targets and deters high-rate, violent offenders. This goal differs from Syracuse’s emphasis on identifying organized criminal groups, but is similar because it still delineates networks of violent criminals (albeit less organized criminals). The strategic analysis at the heart of NoVA, a network analysis of high-rate offenders, includes NIBIN hit data. Once the high-rate offenders are identified, they are targeted with a range of enforcement actions, including a joint ATF/KCPD gun unit and other lever pulling interventions.

Strategic Use 3: In Santa Ana, California, information about all evidence submitted to the firearms section, such as the address of the crime and the nature of the evidence (caliber, rifling, etc.), is first entered into a software program called GunOps ( before being considered for input into NIBIN. Among one of GunOps most powerful analytic tools is its ability to geocode gun crimes. These geolocations are then used to determine which items of evidence have the highest likelihood of producing a hit, which helps the examiner prioritize inputs into NIBIN. The geolocations can also be used to produce maps of gun crime locations, which aids in the analysis of crime patterns involving repeat gun use.

Action Items for Law Enforcement

Not all law enforcement agencies have ready access to NIBIN. However, those that do should think carefully and creatively about how NIBIN can be used strategically to help identify and dismantle violent criminal networks. Every time a gun is used to commit an act of violence, offenders are providing police with valuable investigative information. Police can use that information strategically by routinely geocoding and mapping the locations of gun offenses, conducting network or link analyses with NIBIN hits, or merging NIBIN hit data with other existing data sources (like gun tracing results) to conduct analyses to identify the person and groups that are most centrally involved in violence. NIBIN hits can also be integrated into other initiatives like CompStat, intelligence-led policing, shooting incident reviews, or crime analysis. Retrieving data from the NIBIN system is not a simple process, but the strategic benefits are manifold. ♦

Please cite as:

William King et al., “Using NIBIN Ballistic Imaging Hits for the Strategic Targeting of Violent Criminal Networks,” Research in Brief, The Police Chief 81 (May 2014): 14.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 5, May 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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