Ghost Gun Sniffing Dogs
KSBY Headline / Screenshot

Analysis: Dogs Can’t Smell Serial Numbers and the Dangers of Mindlessly Repeating Police Narratives

Dogs, no matter how well trained, can not tell if a gun has a serial number engraved into it or not.

That is not the impression you would get if you listened to KSBY’s report on Santa Barbara, California’s new police dogs, though. The NBC affiliate chose to frame their story on the dogs through the lens of their ability to detect so-called ghost guns.

“The [ghost] gun might look similar to any regular weapon; however, it’s missing one major piece: registration to make it legally owned,” KSBY reporter Melissa Newman said. “Today, I got a first-hand look at the only K9 in the county trained to detect them.”

The K9 is actually trained to sniff plastic, steel, and gun powder. That’s it. He can’t smell whether a gun has a serial number engraved in it. He doesn’t know if the owner has a registration paper from the state government for it. That is exactly what Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Deputy Shane Moore tells the station eventually.

“Zeke is trained to alert on what we call polymer 80’s, and it’s like the grip part of the handgun. He’s also trained to alert on the steel, the slides, and the ammunition we use for firearms,” Deputy Moore told the news station.

Moore is oddly trying to conflate a company that sells unfinished gun parts, Polymer 80, with the gun parts themselves. So, let’s be clear. The grip on a gun made with Polymer 80 parts is made out of, you guessed it, polymer, just like a Glock or Smith & Wesson pistol sold at the store. There’s no real difference in materials for parts used in homemade guns or retail firearms.

KSBY eventually acknowledges this obvious fact, but they commit to this bizarre framing anyway.

The whole piece reads like a police department wanted to brag about how they’re doing something to combat the specter of “ghost guns,” and nobody at KSBY thought twice about how ridiculous the narrative was. Police departments often want to show people they are actively fighting criminals, and local news often wants to play up threats to juice ratings. Those incentives align in all sorts of bad ways, but occasionally they combine to make everyone involved with the story look utterly ridiculous.

I believe most police are trying to do the right thing most of the time. But that doesn’t mean you have to take everything they say or do at face value. You absolutely shouldn’t do that with police spokesmen or any other kind of government official if you’re a journalist.

There’s a major difference between respecting law enforcement and mindlessly repeating anything they have to tell you. This principle extends well beyond firearms, but it’s certainly true here. Some police, especially those in public relations, like to frame rights primarily as impediments to easier police work. And while life would be easier on law enforcement if we allowed them to search anyone for any reason they saw fit, or let them arrest anyone for merely owning a gun, it would make life quite a lot worse for everyone else.

So, the next time a police officer tries to tell you a story about how their new K9s are trained to smell the difference between a serialized gun and an unserialized one, maybe take that with a grain of salt.

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019


Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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