Guns Found in the Hand

Garavaglia and Talkington studied 498 cases of suicide from gunshot wounds — 365 from handguns and 133 from long arms — to determine in how many cases the weapon remained in the hand and what factors, if any, predisposed to this.6 They found that in 24.1% (120) of the 498 cases, the gun was in the hand; in 69% (344) on or touching the body or within one foot of it, and in 7% (34) of the cases greater than a foot away. Of the 34 guns more than a foot from the body, four (4) were long guns (3% of all long guns) and 30 handguns (8% of all handguns).

In the case of the 365 handgun suicides, in 25.7% (94) of the cases, the gun was in the hand. By this is meant that at least one finger was in the trigger guard or the hands were found loosely gripping the barrel or grip. It was not considered in the hand if the gun appeared to have just simply fallen on the hand or vice versa. In 22 (23.4%) of these 94 cases (6% of all the handgun cases), the deceased shot themselves while standing and collapsed to the ground still holding the weapon.

In the case of long arms, in 19.5% (26) of the 133 cases, the gun was found in the hand, usually the left hand around the barrel. In 6 (23.1%) of the 26 cases (4.5% of the 133 cases), the deceased shot themselves while standing and collapsed to the ground still holding the weapon.

The sex of the deceased, the location of the wound, and the caliber of the gun were not significant in determining if a gun would stay in the hand. In contrast, the position of the deceased at the time they shot themselves was. Of the 498 cases, 249 (50%) individuals were sitting or lying down when they shot themselves; 249 (50%) standing. Of the 120 individuals found with the gun in the hand, 76.6% (92) were sitting or lying down when they shot themselves; 23.3% (28) standing.

Occasionally, one finds yellow to orange-brown areas of discoloration of the skin of the palm and/or fingers of a hand in which a gun was found (Figure 14.11). These are iron deposits in the epidermis due to "rusting" of the iron of the barrel or frame by water and salt in perspiration. This stain will not wipe away. The fact that this material is iron has been confirmed by energy dispersive x-ray and special stains for iron.7 The exact time that the weapon has to rest in the hand for this phenomena to occur is not known but appears to be a few hours at least.

Figure 14.11 Discoloration of palm from deposits of iron.

Backspatter (Blowback) on the Hands of Shooters in Cases of Suicide

Articles and lecturers commonly make mention of the deposition of highvelocity blood droplets (backspatter) on the back of the hand used to fire a handgun in cases of suicide. Such a spray may in fact be present not only on the hand firing the gun, but also on the back of the hand used to steady the muzzle (Figure 14.12).

Figure 14.12 Spray of blood on hand used to steady muzzle of weapon.

Betz et al. studied 103 suicidal contact wounds: 18 from revolvers; 52 from pistols; 22 from a rifle or shotgun and 11 cases where the weapon was unknown.8 In 32% of the 103 cases, blood spatter was present on the shooting hand by naked eye examination. More specifically blood spatter was present in 33% of the cases involving revolvers; 35% pistols; 27% rifles and shotguns and 27% of the cases where the weapon was unknown. All the wounds due to the handguns involved the head and neck. In 6 of the 22 cases involving rifles and shotguns, the wounds were in the chest. In none of the 6 cases was backspatter found. If one considers only the 16 cases of rifle and shotgun wounds where the wound was of the head or neck then the incidence of backspatter is 37.5%.

Betz et al. also noted that as the caliber of the pistols increased so did the frequency of visible backspatter.8 Thus, while 35% of all pistols (calibers .25ACP to 9 mm) were associated with backspatter, 50% of the 9 mm cases (the largest caliber) were positive. The small number of revolver cases prevented any analysis.

Backspatter (Blowback) on Weapons in Cases of Contact Wounds

In addition to examining the hands for blood, if possible, one should examine the gun for the presence of blood or tissue. Examination for blood should be both visual and chemical. Blood is more often detected on the outside of the muzzle than inside the barrel. In a study of 653 revolvers, 242 pistols, 181 shotguns, and 124 rifles used in suicides, blood was detected on the barrel 74% of the time for revolvers, 76% for pistols, 85% for shotguns, and 81% for rifles.3 In contrast, blood was detected inside the barrel in 53% of the revolvers, 57% of pistols, 72% of shotguns and 58% of rifles. The presence of blood inside the barrel of a gun indicates that the weapon was within a few inches of the body at the time of discharge. Absence of blood on or in the barrel does not preclude a close range or contact wound. Thus, no blood was found either on the outside or inside of the barrel in 24% of the suicides using a revolver and 23% using a pistol.

Blood may be detected in the barrel even after the weapon has been discharged. In a study of 25 revolvers and 36 pistols, in 40% of revolvers and in 42% of pistols, blood was detected after one test firing.3 More remarkable was the fact that blood was still detected in 16% of revolvers and 25% of pistols after a second shot was fired.

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