Excuse the pun, but that’s a loaded question. Some say yes, some say no and they’re both right. As with a lot of things CSIs examine, we need to look beyond the “binary” condition of the evidence and consider factors which may influence that condition. In other words, it’s not as simple a question to answer as it may appear. First and foremost we must decide upon a definition of “in hand”. For our purposes let’s say that “in hand” means that the gun in some way is touching the shooting hand.The fingers may or may not be in the trigger guard, the grip in the palm, etc. The reason I leave the definition broad is that in the course of my career I have heard officers, DAs, etc describe a gun as being in the victim’s hand when it was barely touching it.
As you can imagine; shooting a gun is a violent event. The most significant aspect of that firing is the recoil (force generated by the discharge of the cartridge). Larger calibers generally generate more recoil than smaller ones. Additionally, a living person can absorb recoil to varying degrees but a deceased person lacks the muscle control to do so. Firearms are also heavy and will fall with gravity until stopped. So, considering all these factors. the most important are body position, followed by firearm type.
Imagine a man sitting in a folding chair and shooting himself in the head with a .45 caliber pistol. His arm drops to his side and without muscle control it is very likely that the gun will fall from the hand and onto the floor. Now consider the same shot but instead of sitting upright in a chair, the man is laying in bed. If the gun is only falling 2-3 inches and onto a soft surface (like a bed) then it becomes more likely the gun will remain in the hand to some degree. Now consider instead of a .45 the gun in question is a .32 caliber. Less recoil, probably lighter gun, less chance of falling out right?
It’s not to say that a gun in the hand should never be considered suspicious. Certainly, if we believe that a scene has been staged we may expect to find the gun placed in the hand (more on this in a later post). But the presence of a gun in the hand in not , in and of itself, evidence of homicide. We have to look at a number of other factors before concluding that it shouldn’t be in the hand. Sometimes we may even have to conduct role playing exercises to test these factors.
So when writing a scene in your book where gun placement is important to your story think about how recoil, gun weight, and body position might affect the final resting place of that gun. Certainly, if you want to add some mystery to a scene you could have characters argue different positions regarding the importance of the gun being in the hand. Placing unwarranted importance on the gun position can lead the investigation astray and may even implicate an innocent character.