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Gun Modifications, Light Triggers and Reloaded Ammunition

by Marty Hayes, J.D.

Gun enthusiasts often challenge authoritative advice to avoid radically modifying their self-defense gun, reducing trigger pull weight or carrying it with hand-loaded ammunition for self defense. As gun lovers, as well as self-defense practitioners, many who argue these points find it difficult to separate the features of a gun that is fun to shoot from one that is difficult if not impossible to defend in court.

The Big Picture

If you are involved in a self-defense shooting, your gun will be seized as evidence early in the criminal investigation. Responding and investigating officers do not know what occurred, and until they thoroughly investigate the incident they will not know that you fired in self defense. In a perfect world, all the evidence relating to the shooting is collected for later scrutiny, evaluation, testing, argument and use in court. Your gun will be a major piece of evidence at trial. Before trial, it will be checked for fingerprints, photographed, tested for DNA evidence, and possibly fired during gunshot residue and stippling testing. It will be inspected by firearms experts from the state crime lab, to make sure that the gun functions, that all the safeties work, and the trigger pull weight tested to see if it meets factory specifications. Any anomalies, some caused by modifications, will be noted in the crime lab report. If we were writing a movie script, the gun would have its own role, and if the movie was good enough, the gun itself might win a “best supporting actor” award.

The ammunition fired will play a supporting role, too, but since the average person does not understand the field of ballistics as well as they do guns, the ammunition used is often, although not always, glossed over. I do remember testifying in a case in which the ammunition played a huge role in the trial, when my testimony explained the nuances of .38 Special v. .357 Magnum, hollow point v. round nose and wad cutter bullet design. Ammunition also plays a major role if the distance between the muzzle and the wound is an issue, as it often is.

When distances are contested, both the prosecution and the defense will likely conduct gunshot residue and stippling testing, trying to determine how far the muzzle was from the inflicted wound. This was recently illustrated in the George Zimmerman prosecution.

Pre-trial legal procedures play a big role leading up to trial or dismissal of charges. Whether or not you are prosecuted for murder or manslaughter or whether your shooting is deemed justifiable by reason of self defense, can hinge on the prosecution’s opinion of whether or not firearms or ammunition issues could lead a jury to convict or acquit. I would like to think that most prosecuting attorneys do in fact want to see justice served, and if a person is innocent of a crime, they should chose not to prosecute. The sad reality, though, is that many people are prosecuted despite overwhelming evidence of justifiability, as was George Zimmerman.

Many prosecutors have a good understanding of issues relating to self defense. In deciding to pursue a case, they must weigh whether or not they can argue convincingly that you were somehow negligent or reckless based on the type of gun you used or what you had done to your gun prior to the shooting. The prosecutor knows the jury pool and knows if a jury can be swayed by their spurious arguments and accusations of negligence, recklessness or just plain maliciousness.

The Jury Weighs the Evidence

Your guilt or innocence will be determined in court by the evidence presented, which is weighed by the experiences, knowledge and education of the members of the jury. Do not expect jurors to possess the same level of knowledge as you do about self defense. If you live in a gun-friendly community, the jury should include gun owners, as well as non-gun owners. Your jury will usually contain a mix of people who have all been “trained” by TV and the movies, who are likely not NRA members, and who may or may not already have a bias against guns and armed self defense.