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The Ol’ “I Was Just Cleaning My Gun When It Went Off” Excuse

CSIs sometimes respond to shooting scenes in which there has been an “accidental discharge”. Most of the time the shooter is your average citizen but sometimes they are in private security or even  law enforcement. In a vast majority of cases there are no injuries or injuries only to the shooter (like shooting themselves in the hand or leg).  These cases are usually pretty easy to spot. The shooter is often very embarrassed or will offer a laundry list of excuses as to why the gun went off. Such excuses can include…

  1. I installed a “hair-trigger” and accidentally touched it
  2. That’s new ammunition and it must be defective
  3. I dropped it
  4. and my personal favorite “I was just cleaning it and it went off!”

When CSI’s respond to these calls there are a number of things we look at. Obviously we want to know about the shooter and their experience with firearms but even an experienced shooter can make a mistake. Having said that, the very first rule in cleaning your gun involves unloading it! So offering this excuse is highly suspicious to investigators. So from a crime scene standpoint  what sort of things can we determine. First we look at trajectory. Where did the bullet go? For example, if we see a round that goes through a mirror horizontally at about chest or head level what would that suggest? It may suggest that the shooter was “practicing” his “quick draw” in front of the mirror with a loaded gun. If that is the case then it’s easy to understand why the shooter didn’t want to admit to the mistake.  The same is true when the shooter shoots themselves. I once had a case where a Don Juan type was showing off to his new girlfriend (teaching her gun safety) and shot himself in the leg. Needless to say he definitely made an impression on her! Whatever the reason, the trajectory of the bullet should approximate the activity described. But trajectory is just one element.

Obviously we also look at the conditions of the crime scene.  We look at evidence like fingerprints and the directionality of bloodstains (if they exist). If they claim to be cleaning the gun we would hope to see a complete cleaning kit. Does the shooter have all the necessary tools to clean the weapon? It’s kind of hard to clean a gun without the properly sized cleaning brush (i.e. using a 12 gauge brush to try and clean a 9mm pistol).  Was the cleaning kit bought that day (or within the past few days)?  Have they ever cleaned it before? Can they articulate how to clean the weapon and walk your protagonist through it step by step? Another issue to address  is the time of the shooting. Most shooters don’t clean their guns at one o’clock in the morning.  Many good shooters will clean their guns at the range or upon returning home from shooting. This begs the question of why they were cleaning their gun. Did they recently go shooting? Where? When? Can investigators find evidence to support that claim? All of this is important in building the back-story of the investigation. If the person hasn’t shot the gun in months it begs the question why clean the gun here and now?

Trajectory inconsistent with "cleaning"

Rarely, a person might use this excuse in an effort to camouflage a murder or suicide. They may either plant a gun in hand or introduce evidence (staging) to make it appear the person died while cleaning their gun. Obviously, investigators would look at the relationship between the victim and the reporting party. Did neighbors hear them fighting? Is there a history of violence or conflict between them? Assuming that the shooting is an accidental result of cleaning (a huge assumption) we would look at the position of the victim relative to the shooter. A victim shot within eyesight of the shooter (where they can aim) is more suspicious than a round that goes through an apartment wall and hits a neighbor. Although, just because the bullet went through the wall doesn’t mean it was an accident. It could be the suspect was tired of the loud music and fired a round through the wall in frustration (and criminal stupidity).

There are obviously a lot of other things that we may look at given the circumstances of the case but I don’t want to give away too much. The important thing to remember when writing a scene like this is to consider the who, what, where, why and how issues of the shooting. Why here, why now, why them? Does the trajectory “fit” the scenario provided by the shooter? Bottom line…does it pass the smell test? Investigators will be looking for the clues that don’t add up. If it is truly an accident then the evidence should be pretty obvious. But if your character has staged the scene you can use some of the examples below to create clues for your protagonist to find. If you are a gun owner and do a lot of shooting you should be able to think of several more as well. However you choose to use this excuse it can add a nice twist to your storyline and keep your readers engaged.


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