Impact of Ballistic Evidence on Criminal Investigations

By Morgan, Anthony; Jorna, Penny | Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, May 2018 | Go to article overview

Impact of Ballistic Evidence on Criminal Investigations


Morgan, Anthony, Jorna, Penny, Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice


There has been a long-term downward trend in firearm-related homicides and non-fatal shootings in Australia (Bryant & Cussen 2015; Fitzgerald 2013). However, firearms are still used in around one in six homicide incidents (16%; Bryant & Cussen 2015), and there have been spikes in drive-by and non-fatal shootings, concentrated in a relatively small number of New South Wales (NSW) communities (Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research 2015; Fitzgerald 2013). These incidents attract significant media interest and contribute to community concern about the involvement of firearms in crime. Further, while firearms may be less commonly used in crime than other weapons, there is evidence that they increase the risk of lethal injury (Mouzos 2003).

Research based on data on seized firearms has demonstrated a high concentration of firearms among serious and organised crime groups (Bricknell 2012). Firearms are used by organised crime groups as part of territorial disputes, to obtain protection money, to promote their image and reputation and for conflict or revenge purposes (ACIC 2016). According to research by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR), at least one-third of 'shoot with intent' and 'discharge firearm into premises' incidents are related to gangs, drugs or organised crime, while this information was unknown in nearly half of all incidents (Fitzgerald 2013).

This can pose significant challenges for the investigation of firearm-related crime by police. In many incidents of non-fatal shootings, victims and offenders are known to one another and have a criminal relationship, which means that victims are often unwilling to cooperate with police, even when they have been shot by the offender (BOCSAR 2015). Mouzos and Muller (2001) found that unsolved homicides were significantly more likely than resolved cases to involve a firearm. Similarly, Canadian research has shown that homicides involving firearms are three times more likely to be unsolved when compared to homicides involving other weapon types, and the involvement of other criminal activities (eg gangs, drugs) significantly increases the likelihood a homicide will remain unsolved (Dauvergne & Li 2006). Further, simply increasing the amount of resources given to an investigation has been found to have a limited impact on whether or not a case will be solved (Worrall 2016).

Police have therefore looked to new methods to aid in criminal investigations into firearm crimes as part of a wider trend towards the use of technology in law enforcement (Koper, Lum & Willis 2014). Some of these technologies-such as closed-circuit television, body-worn videos and DNA evidencehave been subjected to more empirical study than others. This paper examines the impact of ballistic evidence, obtained through a national automated ballistic information network, on criminal investigations into firearm crime.

Ballistic evidence, ballistic information systems and criminal investigations

When a firearm is discharged it leaves unique microscopic markings on the surface of fired projectiles (commonly referred to as bullets) and cartridge cases. Forensic firearm examiners compare these markings to link cartridge cases and projectiles to crime scenes and recovered firearms. As part of a routine criminal investigation into a crime involving a firearm, police may recover cartridge cases and/or projectiles from the crime scene and then seize a firearm from a suspected offender. These two (or more) exhibits will then be compared to confirm whether the firearm was used in the commission of the alleged offence.

Forensic firearm examiners will also attempt to identify matches between two separate case exhibits- fired projectiles or cartridges from crime scenes or recovered firearms-for cases that were not previously known to be related. A match is known as a cold hit. Importantly, a cold hit does not link a firearm or crime scene to an individual and automatically result in the identification of an offender- the match is between the fired projectile or cartridge case and a test-fired projectile or cartridge case from a seized firearm involved in another incident or recovered from another crime scene. …

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