Deadly Force or Not? Visual and Cognitive Interpretation of Rifles and BB Guns in Crime-Scene Context

Abstract

Although handguns still predominate in gun crimes, rifles are increasingly employed by perpetrators. Little is known about how rifles are visually and cognitively interpreted, or about the degree to which actual rifles can be distinguished from less-lethal or non-lethal replicas. The present research represents an initial effort in this area. Respondents were shown photographs of a realistic crime scene in which a male “assailant” aimed a long gun at a “victim.” One of three weapons was depicted for each respondent: a bolt-action rifle, a lever-action rifle, or a BB gun. Respondents were asked to make a timed “shoot/no-shoot” decision about the scene, based on assessment of threat to the “victim.” They were then asked to identify the type of weapon they had seen, and to describe features of that weapon. It was shown that rifles were identified correctly with a significantly higher frequency than was the BB gun, which was typically identified as an actual rifle or shotgun. No differences were observed between weapons in terms of recognition, correct features identified, or of excessive precision in attempted identification. However, the bolt-action rifle was correctly identified as such more frequently than was the lever-action rifle, which in turn was identified correctly more frequently than the BB gun. Most importantly, “shoot” decisions, and time to shoot, did not differ significantly between the lethal rifles and the non-lethal BB gun. This research has practical ramifications for the criminal justice system regarding the perception and cognitive processing of rifles and less- or non-lethal replicas, in the areas of eyewitness memory and of “shoot/no-shoot” decision making.

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Correspondence to Matthew J. Sharps.

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Herrera, M.R., Sharps, M.J., Swinney, H.R. et al. Deadly Force or Not? Visual and Cognitive Interpretation of Rifles and BB Guns in Crime-Scene Context. J Police Crim Psych 30, 254–260 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11896-014-9158-x

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Key Words

  • Shoot/No Shoot Decisions
  • Long Guns
  • Rifles/Replicas/BB Guns
  • Eyewitness Memory