Criminal Evidence in Gun-Related Homicides

The United States has a long history of guns, tracing back to before the American Revolution. They were used by freemen in British North America for protection against “the Native Americans, the French, and others” [[1]]. Back then they were very difficult to use, but in 1840, the Colt revolver became popular, because it was more efficient, cheaper, and more easily concealed. Along with the increase in Colt revolvers came “an increase in homicide rates” [[2]]. The culture around guns has made the United States the country with “the highest rate of gun homicide in the industrialized world. In 2009, there were 13,636 murders by weapons (out of 15,241 total murders) in the United States. Of these murders, 9,146 were committed with firearms, handguns being the weapon of choice” [[3]]. This data further proves that guns are ingrained in American society, and used to harm others.  The second amendment in the Constitution, the right to keep and bear arms, is one of the most important rights to most Americans because guns are deeply rooted in our culture.

 

 The table above shows the estimated percentage of American Gun Presence in households, comparing pre-industrialization and post-industrialization [[4]].

 

Today, the United States ranks number one in firearm ownership per capita and we dominate in firearm‐related death on a global scale [[5]]. Many believe that because of the high rates of homicides and mass shootings that have been prevalent in recent years, there should be stricter gun laws. There has been an ongoing debate about gun control, where “proponents of stricter gun control argue that guns are responsible for 32,000 gun‐related deaths each year and that the introduction of stricter gun control laws would reduce this death toll” [[6]] On the other hand, gun rights advocates argue “that the general availability of guns reduces homicide rates, due to deterrence and because guns are effective means of self‐defense” [[7]]. The supporters of gun rights believe that guns will help prevent more homicide, but research shows that gun prevalence is positively related to homicide rates [[8]], indicating that the more guns available to the public, the more homicides will occur. The group of people against gun control have no validity to their argument but demonstrate that their beliefs and cultural values are strong enough to fight for gun rights.

There is a violent trend which traces back over centuries involving the use and misuse of firearms, so it should come as no surprise that American forensics have developed and utilized specific techniques and resources to deal with gun-related homicides. Many of these techniques rely heavily on technology and are gaining popularity as gun-related homicides continue to increase. One example of the technology being used in gun-related homicides includes the use of 3D modeling software to help forensic scientists accurately reconstruct a postmortem and skeletonized skull with a bullet wound. This technology is useful in cases of “no further evaluable brain,” and can aid forensic scientists in documenting the path of the bullet and therefore identify which brain structures were damaged and the ability of action in those parts of the brain are associated with the damage.

A study that used postmortem 3D reconstruction of gunshot wounds to the skull, found that concordance rates between the reconstructed bullet trajectory and the autopsy reports were “excellent” for over half of the sample [[9]]. The results produced by the study are useful in depicting the accuracy of 3D reconstruction of the skull and therefore the bullet trajectory as it compares to the actual autopsy reports for each of the cases. This technique is useful in cases of advanced decaying and skeletonizing of the victim’s’ body because it can assist in the assessment of which parts of the brain were destroyed prior to death and can help in determining the trajectory of the bullet.

Another type of technology used to assess gun-related homicides is the 3D Ballistic Trajectory Model, used primarily to determine the trajectory of the bullet, in cases with conflicting evidence and testimony. In this form of 3D modeling, forensic scientists use the heights of the victim and the shooter as well as the postmortem position of the victim, bullet entry and exit, and lodgment points, to simulate a 3D model of the crime scene. This model would include the entire scene – down to the placement of buildings, sidewalks, and physical evidence. This form of modeling may also include the point of view of any eyewitnesses in order to assess their visibility and orientation at the time of the incident.

Using the 3D Ballistic Trajectory model, forensic scientists can manipulate the body posture of both the shooter and the victim in an attempt to align the trajectory of the bullet path with the actual documented entry point. This helps forensic scientists provide clarity on a situation in which there may be several conflicting testimonies. For example, one study using this technique in a case in which a cop fatally shot a man, found that the cop’s description of the events that occurred was actually determined impossible after 3D modeling the bullet path. This helped in bringing justice to the victim [[10]].

However, as forensic technology advances and is continuously incorporated into homicide cases, firearms themselves are advancing in power, speed, and even ammunition composition. The advances in gun technology can further complicate a forensic analysis of a gun-related homicide. Previously, gunshot residue (GSR) was easily analyzed using electron microscopy and energy dispersive spectroscopy, which provides information regarding particle composition and primer residue. This was used to help guide a forensic scientist towards identifying the gun and the ammunition type used by the shooter. However, now, lead-free and non-toxic ammunition is available, which leaves a different kind of GSR called “Organic” GSR and this is much more difficult to pick up using energy dispersive spectroscopy techniques.

Luckily, new forms of identification have been adopted by forensic scientists including gas chromatography, liquid chromatography, and infrared spectroscopy. Using infrared spectroscopy, luminescent chemicals in GSR can be detected under UV radiation. One study involving the accuracy of infrared spectroscopy found that after setting up a “crime scene” involving a drive-by shooting, luminescent GSR could be detected in the car, in the nostrils and on the forehead of the shooter, and up to 9.4m from where the bullet left the gun. This study also found that luminescent GSR could be picked up on the shooter’s hands for up to 9 hours after the crime had been committed, considering hand-washing [[11]].

The accuracy of testing utilizing the analysis of GSR to determine shooting distance and powder identification is supported by other studies. A study using atomic force microscopy to analyze GSR particles found that the dispersion of particles had a correlation with the distance that the bullet traveled. This study also identified differences in the spectra of “pre-shot gun powder” from three different cartridges. The findings of this study may help forensic scientists identify suspects of homicides as this method can identify details such as the distance of the shot and the manufacturer of the bullet [[12]]. These findings help forensic scientists gather more information about the location of the shooter, the path of the bullet, and possible suspects in cases where the shooter may not have been seen or found, as these LGSR particles transfer onto other objects touched by the shooter.

These new technological findings greatly aid in the case of prosecution. Prosecutors have a moral obligation to ensure that justice arises, no matter the case. One way that the US has begun to use these new technological methods to place justice above all else is through gun courts. These are specialized courts that deal only with firearm related offenses. Now, it is very important to differentiate between juvenile and adult gun courts. Juvenile gun courts focus on providing intervention for young offenders involved with firearms. These are much more education-centric, intending to prevent future crimes by informing young offenders of the weighty consequences. Adult gun courts have slightly different goals. They aim to get violent offenders off the streets as quickly as possible and to dole out harsh sentences to these violent offenders [[13]]. By streamlining a specific type of case through a different route, the justice system intends to allow courts to focus only on firearms and move much more quickly than a regular court. Justice demands that violent offenders, especially ones associated with so dangerous a weapon as a firearm, be removed from the public immediately, so that they may not pose any greater threat to the public. The harsher sentences, as well, are perceived as deserved and a hopeful deterrent against further violent behavior involving firearms. With a promising prosecution rate of nearly 80% for all federal and state arrests made related to guns [[14]], it seems these gun courts are doing something of a good job. Therefore, gun courts are fairly accepted as a method of prosecution.

However, adult gun courts do raise a question of fairness. Is it true justice to divide offenders based primarily on their weapon of choice? By putting firearm-related cases in one division, the court itself creates a bias that is then used to give these cases harsher outcomes. The harsher outcomes are actually an intended outcome of this system, which is also questionable. In the wake of stories about mass shootings and murder-suicides amongst families, it can be hard to question the current justice system because of the public views these acts as so heinous that whoever does them, must also receive a heinous punishment. The entire justice system revolves around making sure that the punishment fits the crime. Gun courts make this system a little murky when they automatically assume that if the crime involves a gun, it is already worse than if it did not involve a gun. The justice system also often makes the mistake of using unfair racial profiling in its course of action against criminals. This unfair course of action only adds to the biased nature of gun courts and the US government in general. Statistics from the NAACP show that African Americans and Hispanics comprise only around 30% of the U.S. population, but make up more than 50% of the U.S. prison population [[15]]. African American males are also more likely to die by firearm-related homicide than another other demographics [[16]]. This means that African American males are at a much greater danger when it comes to guns and violence, as well as the danger that comes from the very justice system that generates such a strong racial bias.

 

 The graph above represents findings from an eight-year study conducted by researchers at McGill University and the University of California – Davis about Firearm-Related and Non-Firearm Related Homicides [[17]].

The justice system is not the only source of unfair racial profiling, gun culture in the United States also shows a strong correlation to racism. In a racial discrimination study, it was found that 63.10% of minorities experience racial discrimination compared to 29.61% of Whites” [[18]] and according to another source, “symbolic racism was related to having a gun in the home and opposition to gun control policies in US whites. The findings help explain US whites’ paradoxical attitudes towards gun ownership and gun control. Such attitudes may adversely influence US gun control policy debates and decisions” [[19]]. American culture is tied to racist and discriminatory acts through its past of slavery and other discriminatory laws. This culture still translates in today’s society and has an impact on the homicide rates in the US and therefore affects the proponents of gun control and gun rights advocates.

Another question involving the gun court system is whether or not it works. For juvenile gun courts, the question is even more difficult to answer. There are very few of them in operation and the outcomes of studies are not clear. Opponents of adult gun courts claim that they do achieve the main goals very well, expediting the process and providing harsh sentences. However, in the case of decreasing gun violence as a whole, these courts do not seem to make any progress towards that goal [[20]]. Ethically, another problem arises because if gun courts are not overall reducing the problem of firearm-related violence in America, should they even be in place? They take care of the immediate goal of short-term safer streets, but the harsher sentences don’t seem to be as deterring as they are meant to be.

The ethical issues involved in homicide as a whole, specifically gun-related incidents, extend much further than simply the perpetrator and the victim. A question of culpability arises, as there is an entire outer ring of actors involved in this act of violence, despite their absence during the actual act. There must be, of course, a murderer and a victim in every homicide. Some have multiple murders or multiple victims, but a very distinct line separates them. After the fact, law enforcement investigates and prosecutes the crime, following laws that the government had laid out. Now, ethically, law enforcement has a responsibility to ensure that justice prevails, just as much as the government must pass laws that will not allow murderers to escape justice.

Law enforcement and gun laws are vastly different when comparing the United States to other countries around the world. Often when compared to these countries, many conclude that Americans are seen as more aggressive or more violent “because it is in [America’s] nature to do so” [[21]]. U.S. Americans own nearly twice as many guns as the citizens of Yemen, the world number 2 in private gun ownership and more than twice the number of guns owned by the citizens of Switzerland, the number 3 in private gun ownership [[22]].

 

The table above shows a comparison between European and American Murder rates during the pre-industrialized era and the post-industrialized era [[24]].

 

In one study, Americans are also shown to own a significant amount more guns than Europeans, and therefore have higher murder rates, as seen in Table 2 [[23]]. It is seen to be part of U.S. culture for Americans to be violent or angry and violence is often tied to guns in America, especially when talking about homicide. “In 2005, 68% of homicides were committed by criminals armed with guns” [[25]]. The normalization of gun-related homicides permeates in media through movies, TV shows and video games. Many people have become so desensitized to the violence that once it transfers to real-life scenarios, there is significantly less impact. Because guns are so deeply rooted in American society, homicide is now an additional part of American culture. The extreme violence that is so prevalent in the media perpetuates the same violence that so many Americans face today. Despite forensic and legal efforts to achieve justice in the cases of homicide, there is still a strong presence of both firearms and violence in society.

Joanna Delgado

Megan Northrup

Alexa Baldwin

 

[1] Innis, Kim A. Mac. “Homicides, Gun.” In Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law, by Gregg Lee Carter. 2nd ed. ABC-CLIO, 2012. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/abcguns/homicides_gun/0?institutionId=1724

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Monkkonen, Eric. “Homicide: Explaining America’s Exceptionalism.” The American Historical Review 111, no. 1 (2006): 76-94. doi:10.1086/ahr.111.1.76. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/ahr.111.1.76?pq-origsite=summon&seq=7#metadata_info_tab_contents

[5] Lynch, Kellie R., and Dylan B. Jackson. “”People Will Bury Their Guns before They Surrender Them”: Implementing Domestic Violence Gun Control in Rural, Appalachian versus Urban Communities.” Rural Sociology. January 18, 2018. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ruso.12206.

[6] Stroebe, Wolfgang. “Firearm Availability and Violent Death: The Need for a Culture Change in Attitudes toward Guns.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy. November 23, 2015. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/asap.12100.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Peschel, O., Szeimies, U., Vollmar, C., & Kirchhoff, S. 2013. Postmortem 3-D reconstruction of skull gunshot injuries. Forensic Science International (Online), 233(1), 45-50. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.forsciint.2013.08.012

[10] Galligan, Aisling A., Craig Fries, and Judy Melinek. 2017. Gunshot wound trajectory analysis using forensic animation to establish relative positions of shooter and victim. Forensic Science International (Online) 271, (Feb 01): e8-e13, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1863559493?accountid=14244 (accessed April 1, 2019).

[11] Weber, I. T., Melo, A., Lucena, M., Consoli, E. F., Rodrigues, M. O., de Sá, G., . . . Alves, S. 2014. Use of luminescent gunshot residues markers in forensic context. Forensic Science International (Online), 244, 276-84. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.forsciint.2014.09.001

[12] Mou, Yongyan, Jyoti Lakadwar, and J. Wayne Rabalais. “Evaluation of Shooting Distance by AFM and FTIR/ATR Analysis of GSR.” Journal of Forensic Sciences, 2008. doi:10.1111/j.1556-4029.2008.00854.x

[13] Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “Gun Court Literature Review.” Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. September 2010. Accessed March 2019. https://www.ojjdp.gov/mpg/litreviews/Gun_Court.pdf.

[14] Southwick Jr., Lawrence. “Enforcement of Gun Control Laws.” In Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law, by Gregg Lee Carter. 2nd ed. ABC-CLIO, 2012. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/abcguns/enforcement_of_gun_control_laws/0?institutionId=1724

[15] NAACP. “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” NAACP. Accessed April 2019. https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/

[16] Riddell, Corinne A., Sam Harper, Magdalena Cerdá, and Jay S. Kaufman. “Comparison of Rates of Firearm and Nonfirearm Homicide and Suicide in Black and White Non-Hispanic Men, by U.S. State.” Annals of Internal Medicine. May 15, 2018. Accessed March 2019. https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2679556/comparison-rates-firearm-nonfirearm-homicide-suicide-black-white-non-hispanic

[17] Ibid.

[18] Lee, Randy T., Amanda D. Perez, C. Malik Boykin, and Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton. “On the Prevalence of Racial Discrimination in the United States.” PLOS ONE. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0210698.

[19] Kerry O’Brien, Walter Forrest, Dermot Lynott, and Michael Daly. “Racism, Gun Ownership and Gun Control: Biased Attitudes in US Whites may Influence Policy Decisions.” PLoS One 8, no. 10 (10, 2013). doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0077552. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1447721518?accountid=14244.

[20] Yablon, Alex. “The Case for Gun Courts.” The Trace. September 24, 2015. Accessed April 2019. https://www.thetrace.org/2015/09/gun-courts-drug-courts-rochester-shooting/

[21] Lynch, Kellie R., and Dylan B. Jackson. “”People Will Bury Their Guns before They Surrender Them”: Implementing Domestic Violence Gun Control in Rural, Appalachian versus Urban Communities.” Rural Sociology. January 18, 2018. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ruso.12206.

[22] Stroebe, Wolfgang. “Firearm Availability and Violent Death: The Need for a Culture Change in Attitudes toward Guns.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy. November 23, 2015. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/asap.12100.

[23]  Monkkonen, Eric. “Homicide: Explaining America’s Exceptionalism.” The American Historical Review 111, no. 1 (2006): 76-94. doi:10.1086/ahr.111.1.76. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/ahr.111.1.76?pq-origsite=summon&seq=7#metadata_info_tab_contents

[24] Ibid.

[25] Kovandzic, Tomislav, Mark E. Schaffer, and Gary Kleck. “Estimating the Causal Effect of Gun Prevalence on Homicide Rates: A Local Average Treatment Effect Approach.” SpringerLink. October 11, 2012. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10940-012-9185-7.

 

 

5 Comments

  1. I think this is a topical issue that addresses many current events and issues that the country faces today. The blog did a good job of of bringing in many perspectives, however, I think there could have been more emphasis on comparisons between solutions that other countries have found. How do countries with lower rates of gun violence propose solutions? How can these solutions integrate with the systemic racism that the United States faces?

  2. An extremely pertinent topic in our lives today, this post did a great job at looking at the history of guns in America as well as their place in our society now. It was not surprising to me to find out that the United States ranks number one in firearm ownership per capita according to the article. This ties into the alarmingly high rates of shootings in the country which has prompted many citizens to demand stricter gun control laws. This post delves into the three different perspectives of gun related homicides very effectively however the ethical perspective could be bolstering a bit. Besides the post does a very good job!

  3. This article is good and very important especially in today’s climate where gun violence is very real and legislation is not doing much about it. It was very interesting to read about how specific the forensics can be in regard to the gun, the type of bullet, the trajectory, time of impact, how it affected the brain, and much more. The gun courts seem very effective in prosecuting shooters, which is good because it keeps everyone safer, and hopefully with the forensics they are accurate and not locking up innocent people, which would be interesting to hear more about, how many innocent people get locked up and are these forensics helping to change this number? In regard to gun courts it does seem unfair to have a harsher punishment based on using a gun as a murder weapon, rather than not, and there is also still a high racial bias in the justice system too, what are some ways we can help improve this? From this article as well as from everything on the news, it is obvious that America has a gun problem that needs to be fixed and we need to address it head on so that innocent people can stop dying, as shown in the culture aspect, this can be done effectively based on other countries’ gun laws and success with them.

  4. Stephen Parson

    April 24, 2019 at 9:58 pm

    It genuinely intrigues me to think that during a period in which the majority of US citizens owned a firearm, the rate of murder utilizing firearms was at its lowest. This post is definitely a topic relevant today, considering the raging debate over gun control. I’d never stopped to consider the ramifications of using firearms in a crime in comparison to other methods; what pushes courts to see guns in a more extreme light in comparison to other methods of murder, especially considering they all lead to death?

  5. Personally, this article’s title caught my attention because of the prevalence this topic has in today’s society. In the United States past when virtually everyone owned a gun, it is hard to imagine this was the time murder rates using firearms were at its lowest. The statistic of the United States being the country with “the highest rate of gun homicide in the industrialized world” is not only depressing but concerning. The mention of the Second Amendment in the Constitution is interesting because that amendment is highly protested and debated currently. Each side fights strongly for their beliefs and it seems as if there is no solution that will please everyone. Comparing the United States and European murder rates was interesting to me, studying what the differences between the countries that could cause this would bring compelling results. Maybe the United States could model the European countries laws on gun control to lower murder rates. Overall I think the post does a very good job of addressing the three areas!

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