Over the past year there has been an increase in forensic firearms work being carried out by the police using in-house force armourers. The recent closure of the Forensic Science Service’s specialist scientific firearms units and increased budgetary pressures on the police to prepare cases more cheaply have exacerbated this trend. The loss of scientific input, however, is having a damaging effect on the quality and accuracy of evidence being brought before the courts.
a) Trace evidence can be lost if the firearms officer is not sufficiently forensically aware or has not been scientifically trained in what to record and recover from the seized item. Textile fibre comparisons or DNA profiling analysis, for example, may be precluded from any future forensic strategy.
b) Almost half of the firearms enquiries Keith Borer Consultants has received this year have involved weapons which had not been sent to a forensic laboratory for scientific examination. In some cases, the police had not examined the weapons from the time of seizure until we requested to see them. It appears that sometimes weapons are submitted to a forensic laboratory only when the details of the weapon and charge are challenged by the defence.
c) Vital tests are not being carried out before a defendant is charged. We have encountered a number of cases recently where air rifles had not been test fired to determine their power. The absence of testing may significantly affect the accuracy of the charge against your client. Is the weapon functional, is it ‘especially dangerous’, i.e. requiring certification under the Firearms Act, or is it a firearm at all?
The majority of air weapons in the public domain are those which can be acquired and possessed without a certificate. The onus is on the individual to be aware of the weapon’s power and to maintain it so that it does not exceed the legal limits. The most controversial argument as regards air weapons is to differentiate between an air weapon that is a firearm within the definition of the Act, and one that is not. Does it have the potential to discharge a projectile with lethal potential? There is no definition of lethality within firearms legislation, and this raises a lot of arguments between firearms experts. Experience in casework and examination of the lethal potential of various weapons can aid in interpreting the issues of lethality. Many Force Armourers do not have the necessary training in determining lethal potential and some routinely quote figures much lower than scientific measurement would suggest was correct.
Increasingly, the defence need to instruct an expert to carry out testing to ensure their client’s interests are being observed. The cost of the investigation is transferred from the prosecution to the defence and, when the defence findings are presented, the prosecution often want to repeat the work for themselves, thus incurring more cost and causing delays to the trial.
Ann Kiernan, Firearms Expert, Keith Borer Consultants