Using bullets like fingerprints: How South Carolina is using tech to ID guns used in crimes

Pee Dee

HARTSVILLE, S.C. (WBTW) — More than a year later, Jay Gibson is still trying to find his son’s killer.

“He was taken from us,” Gibson said. “And that was the toughest phone call I ever got in my life. When you lose your son or child, you lose your future.”

Shawn Gibson was shot and killed in March 2020 on Byrd Street in Timmonsville. His father describes him as a loving dad who had a 5-month-old daughter at the time.

“She’ll never get to see her father again,” Jay Gibson said. “He would always make you smile. He was always joking and cutting up. He was a very hard worker.”

There have been at least 198 shootings this year within News13’s coverage area — which includes Darlington, Dillon, Florence, Horry, Marion and Marlboro counties in South Carolina, along with Robeson and Scotland counties in North Carolina. At least 68 people have died in shootings so far in 2021. Like Gibson’s, many of them have not had an arrest.

Hartsville also has seen an increase in the number of shooting calls it’s responded to this year, according to Lt. Mark Blair with the Hartsville Police Department.

“Two years ago, if you asked me who’s going to get shot, I — we — can say probably drug dealers, domestic partners or boyfriend-girlfriend kind of situations,” Blair said. “Now, it seems more of a respect issue.”

Now, the department is turning to technology for help.

Hartsville police are working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’s Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN. Of the 245 NIBIN sites nationwide, three are in South Carolina.

The technology essentially analyzes the unique markings left on a cartridge case — similar to a fingerprint — and turns it into 3-D images of ballistic evidence. That data is then used across jurisdictions to identify if the gun has been used in other crimes. Police agencies are able to bring cases to the lab to be analyzed, and recovered guns are test fired and submitted into the system.

“Instead of traditional means where we would investigate individuals, which would lead us to the evidence, we’re actually investigating the evidence and it’s leading us to those who are committing violent crimes in the community,” said Brian Mein, the ATF assist special agent in charge of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s NIBIN program.

The system has been in place for two decades but has grown in the last five. Mein said that 20% of all acquisitions it gets generate a lead in a case.

Hartsville hopes the technology will get stolen guns and violent offenders off the street, but it also needs witnesses and the community to come forward with information about crimes.

“Staying silent on something could lead to a murder,” Blair said. “You speaking up could prevent a murder.”

Myrtle Beach police have received a grant to create its own NIBIN site, which would become the fourth location in the state.

ATF said that it’s looking forward to the new lab so it can see if crimes committed in Myrtle Beach can be connected to those in larger cities, like Atlanta.

For now, families like the Gibsons are hoping for answers. The family is offering an $11,500 reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction.

They’re ready for the violence to stop.

“There have been so many murders around this area,” Jay Gibson said. “It’s unbelievable. So many people are devastated because of nonsense. It needs to stop.”

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