NDAA Responds to Scientific American Article on Firearms Forensics

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Few studies of firearms exist and those that do indicate that examiners cannot reliably determine whether bullets or cartridges were fired by a particular gun.”

This is simply false. The authors themselves admit later in the article that several studies proving reliability have recently been published. PCAST called for at least two studies of “appropriate design”. Now that there are multiple appropriately designed studies showing firearms examination meets PCAST’s criteria, the authors obfuscate the data.

By contrast, if you want to know whether the vaccine is effective, you don’t ask the nurse; you ask research scientists who understand how it was created and tested.”

First, to determine efficacy in a particular case, you might well ask the nurse who administered the shot and then observed over time whether the patient became ill with a virus or suffered side effects of the vaccine. Second, there are dozens of researchers in the firearms and toolmark discipline who are classically trained scientists. Many are authors of the studies that Faigman/Scurich/Albright ignore. These scientists have PhDs in fields such as materials science and engineering, applied research, statistics, chemistry, etc. Meanwhile, the authors have not personally conducted any empirical research — not about examiners’ rate of error or emerging technology. The authors’ claimed expertise is that they have read studies. One can read a book on baseball, but that will not make you good at baseball.

What are needed are anti-expert experts. Such experts are now appearing more and more in courts across the country, and we count ourselves proudly among this group.”

Courts have said — and the law is clear — that only relevant scientists have the right to opine on the acceptance of a forensic methodology. In both Frye and Daubert, the concept of “general acceptance in the relevant scientific community” is axiomatic. The self-exaltation of the authors does not overcome black letter law. In fact, one of the authors was recently excluded from testifying before a California jury because the judge found he lacked the appropriate expertise. It is bizarre that the authors, who could not perform any aspect of firearms toolmark microscopy, deem themselves thoroughly qualified to criticize the discipline. While it is abundantly clear that they could not reliably recognize matching toolmarks, that fact does not mean experienced and qualified forensic practitioners are similarly inept.

PCAST concluded that more than a single appropriately designed study was necessary to validate the field of firearm examination, and it called for additional studies to be conducted.”

In 2016, PCAST said that more than the single study they deemed “appropriately designed” was needed. In 2017, The Co-Chair of PCAST, Dr. Eric Lander, wrote in the Fordham Law Review, “With only a single well-designed study estimating accuracy, PCAST judged that firearms analysis fell just short of the criteria for scientific validity, which requires reproducibility. A second study would solve this problem.”

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The NRC and PCAST reports were attacked vigorously by firearms examiners.”

This is misleading. Firearms examiners were just one group of many PCAST critics. PCAST was disparaged by numerous prominent forensic science organizations. For example, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD), a well-known and respected forensic science group, said of PCAST, “The report seems to favor that all scientific evaluation activities be performed completely separate from scientists with direct forensic science experience. ASCLD strongly disagrees with the removal of forensic scientists from the evaluation of scientific integrity or technical merit of analyses. ASCLD supports the involvement of academic scientists in the process, but strongly disagrees that these evaluations should be performed in a vacuum devoid of participation by the forensic scientists who can impart an applied knowledge and understanding to the research.” The American Congress of Forensic Science Laboratories noted that PCAST, “… was born of an imbalanced and inexperienced working group whose make-up included no forensic practitioners nor any other professionals with demonstrated experience in the practice of forensic science.”

These studies report amazingly low error rates, typically around 1 percent or less…”

Near the conclusion of their article, the authors acknowledge that there have been additional studies with false positive error rates less than 1%; their term “amazingly” conveys disbelief that experienced practitioners could be good at their jobs. To avoid this inconvenient fact, the authors shift the goal posts by attempting to manipulate the statistics. The outlier statistical approach they propose has never been adopted by the scientific community. In fact, under Professor Faigman’s watch, PCAST did not adopt the statistical approach the authors now proffer. Clearly, statisticians do not agree with the authors’ “anti-expert expert” approach.

Existing studies, however, count inconclusive responses as correct (i.e., “not errors”) without any explanation or justification.”

This demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of firearm and toolmark analysis. Inconclusive decisions are commonplace in casework as well as in studies. The reasons for inconclusive decisions are apparent to any trained examiner: there is no guarantee that a sufficient quantity and quality of toolmarks will be made on ballistic evidence in any particular case. This is true for pristine laboratory samples as well as in casework. Since the authors have personally never analyzed firearm evidence, it is no surprise they fail to recognize this basic concept.



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National District Attorneys Association

National District Attorneys Association

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.