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Firearms violence is a major problem in the United States. Each year, over 10,000 homicides involve firearms, and almost 500,000 other crimes, such as robberies and assaults, are committed using firearms. Firearms examiners seek to link fired shell casings or bullets from crime scene evidence to a particular firearm. The underlying assumptions is that firearms impart unique marks on bullets and cartridge cases, and that trained examiners can identify these marks to determine bullets or cartridges cases were fired by the same gun. For over a hundred years, firearms examiners testified in criminal trials that they can conclusively identify the source of a bullet or shell casing. In recent years, however, research scientists have called into question the validity and reliability of such testimony. Further, the revolution in judicial screening of expert testimony following Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., has slowly impacted rulings in criminal cases.
In this presentation, we describe an Article in which we detail over a century of caselaw, examining how judges have engaged with the changing practice and scientific understanding of firearms comparison evidence. We first describe how judges were initially skeptical of firearms comparison evidence and thought that jurors were capable of making the comparisons themselves, without a need for expert testimony. Next, we document how claims made by experts became more specific and aggressive as the work spread nationally. Finally, we explore the modern era of firearms caselaw and research, which has become decidedly more complex. Judges increasingly express skepticism and adopt a range of approaches to limit in-court testimony by firearms examiners. We conclude by examining the lessons regarding the gradual judicial embrace of scientific critiques of expert testimony that can be learned from the more-than-a-century-long arc of judicial review of firearms evidence in the United States
Presenter: Brandon Garrett