West Virginia University researchers from two departments are collaborating to produce groundbreaking technologies that enable gunshot residue to be used as hard evidence in court and on the battlefield.
Suzanne Bell, Ph.D., associate professor of forensic chemistry, Jim Arndt, chemistry doctoral candidate, and their team of undergraduate and graduate researchers in the WVU C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry and the WVU Forensic and Investigative Science program, received a $392,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense/U.S. Army Forensics for their multidisciplinary project to revitalize techniques used to detect and evaluate gunshot residue left on a suspect’s hands.
The team is a unique, cross-disciplinary mix of chemistry undergraduate students and forensic science masters students led by a chemistry doctoral student with contributions by two other chemistry doctoral students. One of their key research goals is to understand the persistence of gunshot residues of all types.
“We are so excited to have the U.S. military taking an active interest in our research and helping to support this work with such a critical type of physical evidence,” Bell said. “For example, right now we know that gunshot residue is lost after a couple of days without washing, but we need to make this quantitative and evaluate how washing and skin-to-skin transfer will affect the process. This is one of the many aspects of gunshot residue evidence that this grant will allow us to study.”
Traditional gunshot residue tests focus on residue left by the primer. The particles that form when the primer ignites include particles of metal oxides that are deposited on the hands of the shooter. However, the particles can also be transferred to others nearby. The particles are also easily transferred from one surface to another. As a result, it is difficult to interpret the meaning of a positive result.
Bell, Arndt and their team will look at the particulates that contain metals left over from a gunshot and at the propellant, combustion products and other materials produced when a gun is fired. Using a combination of methods, the team has created a method that looks at all constituents of gunshot residue, not just the primer. The combined data will be integrated and evaluated using advanced data analysis, multivariate statistics and neural networks.
The main instrument used in this project is ion mobility spectrometry. This is the same technology that is used to check luggage at airports for residues of explosives and drugs. Both field screening and laboratory methods are being tested and validated. A unique “boom box” is being constructed for the project to allow for collection of all types of solid and gaseous gunshot residues produced when a weapon is fired.
For more information, contact Bell at 304-293-8606 or Suzanne.Bell@mail.wvu.edu.
CONTACT: Rebecca Herod, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
304-293-7405 ext. 5251, Rebecca.Herod@mail.wvu.edu
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